What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes an individual to have difficulty digesting protein known as gluten, which can lead to small intestine damage. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, an estimated 1 out of every 100 people worldwide have Celiac disease. Nearly 2.5 million people in the United States are undiagnosed and at risk for long-term health complications.
Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. When a person with Celiac disease ingests gluten, their immune system sees this protein as harmful, and begins to attack the small intestine. Once under attack, the immune reaction can damage the tiny, hairlike structures, known as villi, that line the small intestine. When these structures become damaged, the body has difficulty absorbing nutrients properly, which can lead to a host of long-term health effects.
It is estimated that roughly 3 million Americans suffer from Celiac disease, and more children have Celiac disease than Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and cystic fibrosis combined. Celiac disease can occur at any age, and does not appear to affect a certain population more than another. On average, an individual with Celiac disease waits 6-10 years for an accurate diagnosis.
What Causes Celiac Disease?
The inability to digest gluten properly is thought to be the result of one’s genetics. Celiac disease is widely believed to be hereditary, occurring in certain predisposed individuals. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Celiac disease almost always occurs in people who have one of two gene variants, known as DQ2 and DQ8.
These two gene variants are thought to be the primary cause of Celiac disease, with about 30% of the population having the two; however, only 3% of people with these genes will develop Celiac disease. There is also evidence to suggest that other factors such as early childhood infections and certain digestive tract infections may increase the risk for Celiac disease, however, there is not enough evidence to support these claims.
For now, the prevailing school of thought is that some level of genetic inheritance, along with the consumption of gluten, is the cause of Celiac disease.
What are the Symptoms of Celiac Disease?
The intestinal damage and irritation caused by Celiac disease can often lead to diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, bloating, and anemia, and can oftentimes lead to more serious complications later in life. The signs and symptoms of Celiac disease can differ greatly from person to person, and can often take on entirely different symptoms in children.
There are many different symptoms and signs of Celiac disease, which can oftentimes make a proper diagnosis difficult. In children, digestive symptoms such as constipation or diarrhea are more common, with only a third of adults reporting digestive issues.
Below are lists of the most common symptoms for both children and adults with Celiac disease.
Signs of Celiac Disease in Children
- Weight loss
- Short stature
- Irritability or behavioral changes
- Delayed puberty or growth
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Signs of Celiac Disease in Adults
- Bone and joint pain
- Depression or anxiety
- Liver disorders such as fatty liver or primary sclerosing cholangitis
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Missed menstrual cycles
- Infertility or miscarriage
- Aphthous ulcers (canker sores) in the mouth
- Dermatitis herpetiformis (skin rash)
Across the board, anemia—a condition in which the body lacks an adequate supply of healthy red blood cells, the most common being iron deficiency anemia—is the most common disorder found alongside Celiac disease; as many as 69% of people with Celiac disease have reported some level of an anemic condition.
How is Celiac Disease Treated?
While the exact cause of Celiac disease is unknown, the only treatment that is effective in combating Celiac disease is a strict adherence to a gluten-free diet. Celiac disease has no cure, and as a result can be a very difficult condition to live with.
It’s estimated that about 20% of people with Celiac disease do not respond to a gluten-free diet. Furthermore, the same study found that an equal amount of people with Celiac disease are asymptomatic, and have no associated symptoms, but are still at risk for developing long-term health conditions such as intestinal lymphomas or other GI cancers.
An early diagnosis of Celiac disease can be extremely important at reducing the chance of developing not only severe health conditions, but also other autoimmune disorders. If diagnosed between 4-12 years of age, the chances of developing another autoimmune condition is roughly 16.7%, but increases to over 34% by the time a person reaches 20 years of age or older, according to a study conducted by the Celiac Disease Foundation.
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