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Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is an inherited autoimmune disorder in which the delicate finger-like projections (villi) lining the wall of the small intestine become severely damaged from ingesting gluten and other proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. During the digestive process the villi become shortened and flattened out, losing their ability to effectively absorb nutrients, resulting in potentially life-threatening nutritional deficiencies.

Who is Most Prone to Developing Celiac Disease?

Although previously believed to be a disorder primarily of infants and children, it is now clear that celiac disease can develop at any stage in life from infancy to adulthood, and can occur even in the elderly. Persons of European ancestry and women are more commonly affected, although recent studies show that celiac disease also affects Hispanic and Black populations, as well as Asian populations from India and Pakistan. It is rarely diagnosed in persons of Japanese or Chinese ancestry. The exact trigger for onset of the disease is still unknown. Celiac disease is the most common genetic disease in Europe. In the United States, approximately 1 out of every 133 Americans have celiac disease. About 9 out of 10 people who have celiac disease do not know they have it.

Because of the broad range of symptoms, celiac disease can be difficult to diagnose. Intestinal signs and symptoms are many and varied, but can include: nausea, vomiting, painful bloating and distention of the abdomen, cramping, flatulence, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, fatty/greasy stools that are excessively foul-smelling, bloody stools, and stools that float on top of the water in the toilet bowl. Other symptoms can include easy bruising, muscle weakness, poor balance, numbness or tingling in the arms and legs, weight loss, and fluid retention.

Is There a Cure for Celiac Disease?

There is no cure for celiac disease. In order to stay well and allow the villi of the small intestine to heal, persons with celiac disease must adhere to a lifelong gluten-free diet. Studies have shown that persons with celiac disease who continue to eat gluten have increased chances of gastrointestinal cancer at a rate of 40 to 100 times that of the normal population. Additionally, gastrointestinal carcinoma develops in up to 15 percent of persons with untreated celiac disease.

Gluten is a glue-like protein composite found naturally in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Although synonymous with grain, gluten is not the grain itself. Gluten is what gives bread dough its elasticity, helping it to rise and keep its shape, and gives bread products a bendy, chewy, fluffy texture. It is also what makes bread go stale. Gluten upsets the digestive function of some people, including those with celiac disease.

Although challenging, living a gluten free lifestyle is important for retaining health. Reading the ingredient labels of all packaged food and beverage products is crucial, as wheat, barley and rye is abundant in the American diet, and in most common foods. Eating out brings its own challenges, and will require good planning and communication with restaurant staff prior to ordering to determine if gluten-free entrees are available. Unfortunately, many persons employed in the restaurant industry are unfamiliar with terms such as gluten-free and therefore may unintentionally or unknowingly provide incorrect information about the presence of gluten in their menu items.

Any person suspecting celiac disease is strongly advised to seek professional testing and guidance from medical professionals BEFORE embarking on a gluten free diet.