If you’ve been shopping in the grocery store in recent years, you’ve probably noticed a section where all foods are gluten-free, in part because gluten-free diets have gained popularity over recent years.
People may avoid gluten for different reasons, whether it has to do with something they heard in the media or to improve other medical conditions, like hypothyroidism. However, for those with celiac disease, the choice to avoid gluten isn’t voluntary—it’s necessary if they want to maintain their health. Whether you think you may have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity or simply want to learn more about celiac disease, read on to find out the details about this autoimmune condition, what symptoms look like, and how patients are diagnosed.
When celiac disease goes undiagnosed, over time, this prevents the small intestine from absorbing nutrients. This can cause permanent intestinal damage as well as other health problems, such as vitamin and iron deficiencies.
What Is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body has an unnatural reaction to gluten when it is consumed for those who have celiac. An autoimmune disease is when the body attacks its own healthy cells. For gluten disease specifically, the body’s immune response destroys the villi that line the small intestine. When celiac disease goes undiagnosed, over time, this prevents the small intestine from absorbing nutrients. This can cause permanent intestinal damage as well as other health problems, such as vitamin and iron deficiencies.
The only current treatment for celiac disease is to avoid gluten entirely. Gluten is a protein associated with bread, but it can also be found in a variety of foods that have ingredients containing wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. Gluten can also be found in pasta, baked goods, beer, cereal, crackers, gravy, oats, soups, salad dressings, and processed lunch meat—so those with celiac disease must be exceedingly careful about what they consume. Gluten can also hide out in cosmetics like lipstick and can be in over-the-counter and prescribed medications and vitamins.
What Are the Symptoms of Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease symptoms present differently for each individual, and in children, they will present differently than in adults. Symptoms in adults can vary depending on whether there is already damage to the small intestine and how often gluten is consumed, in addition to other factors. Some adults may not experience symptoms at all and may be unaware they have celiac disease until they develop anemia or a deficiency. Children typically present with more noticeable symptoms, such as digestive problems. Symptoms in children include:
- Abdominal bloating
- Unexplained weight loss
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Abdominal pain
- Failure to thrive (infants)
- Foul-smelling, pale stools
Adults are much less likely to experience digestive symptoms, and celiac disease can manifest in a number of ways, including:
- Unexplained fatigue
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Skin disorders
- Tingling in the extremities
- Brittle bones
- Tooth discoloration
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Infertility and miscarriage
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis. Attempting a gluten-free diet on your own as an elimination diet can help minimize your symptoms, but getting an official diagnosis from a physician is best. Celiac disease can look like other digestive problems, such as lactose intolerance, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or problems with the pancreas. Because of this, it’s important not to self-diagnose.
How Is Celiac Disease Diagnosed?
Your physician will make the celiac diagnosis based on many factors. Your doctor will likely first ask you about your medical history and the medical history of your immediate family. Next, you will likely have a blood test. This blood test looks for certain antibodies that are associated with the presence of celiac disease (namely antigliadin and endomysial antibodies). If all signs point to celiac, your healthcare provider may also take a biopsy of the small intestine to look for damage to be sure of the diagnosis. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, it takes about three to six months for children to recover from celiac disease, and it can take several years for adults (recovery being the complete healing of the intestinal lining and no more deficiencies). The only treatment for celiac disease is to adopt a completely gluten-free diet, which often leaves patients wondering what they can and cannot eat.
What Can I Eat on a Gluten-Free Diet?
When it comes to a gluten-free diet, there are certain “safe” foods that you can eat, where you can always rest assured that the food contains no gluten. Some of these foods include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Meat and fish
- Rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth (for grains)
- Rice flour
- Cereals made from millet, corn, teff, or sorghum
- Any food that has a “gluten-free” label
Foods that you must avoid include anything with wheat, barley, rye, or triticale. Those with celiac disease must become experts at reading food labels or asking questions when eating out. Gluten can hide in a variety of foods and condiments. Exert caution when ingesting:
- Soy sauce
- Spices and seasonings
- Ice cream
- Processed meat and sausage
- Canned soup
There may also be gluten present in communion wafers, toothpaste, postage stamps, lip balm and other cosmetics, vitamins, and medications. If you have celiac disease, always make sure you know what you are about to ingest or use is gluten-free before you use it. While ingesting a small amount of gluten shouldn’t affect someone with gluten sensitivity, it can be harmful to those who have celiac disease.
What Is the Difference Between Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease?
It’s estimated that 1 in 100 people have celiac disease around the globe, with about 2.5 million Americans who are undiagnosed. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, while gluten sensitivity means that your body is sensitive to consuming gluten. Taking the blood test for celiac disease would return a negative result, but this doesn’t mean your symptoms are imaginary. Many of the same symptoms those with celiac disease experience are present in those with more severe gluten sensitivity. However, those with gluten sensitivity do not experience intestinal damage (rarely) and do not experience vitamin deficiencies as a result of consuming gluten. But because it does affect the quality of life, many of those with gluten sensitivity choose to avoid foods containing gluten.
Learn more about celiac disease with Gastro Florida.
If you need more information about celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or gluten-free diets, or wish to be seen by a physician, contact us today at Gastro Florida. We provide complete, comprehensive care to Tampa Bay, Florida for all types of gastrointestinal disturbances, including celiac disease and other food allergies.