Celiac disease, which is thought to be an autoimmune disorder and may have a familial or genetic component, is a reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. A person who suffers from celiac disease, eating gluten would trigger an immune response in the small intestine. Over time, this reaction produces inflammation that damages the small intestine's lining and prevents absorption of some nutrients. Consequently, the intestinal damage can cause weight loss, bloating and sometimes diarrhea. Eventually, the brain, nervous system, bones, liver and other organs can be deprived of vital nourishment. If this disease occurs in the childhood, it can affect the growth and the development of the child.
The symptoms vary widely in presentation and intensity and they usually involve the digestive system causing abdominal discomfort, bloating, nausea and loose bowel movements. Because the intestine becomes inflamed, it may also lose its ability to absorb nutrients from the diet, leading to other associated illnesses. Due to this, the disease results in diarrhea and weight loss, but those occur in less than one-half of people with the disease.
Some of the symptoms are not related to the bowel function. Instead, they occur due to the consequences of chronic malabsorption of vitamins and minerals. Those symptoms may include the following:
- Fatigue and weakness;
- Joint pain;
- Numbness and tingling (paresthesia) of the hands and feet;
- Osteoporosis and osteomalacia;
- Skin rash
- Abdominal pain
- GERD and heartburn
Unfortunately, the precise cause of celiac disease is not known. Some gene mutations appear to increase the risk of developing the disease. But having those gene mutations does not mean that a person shall get celiac disease, since other factors must be involved. Sometimes celiac disease is triggered after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection or severe emotional stress.
The inability to properly absorb vitamins, minerals and nutrients from the diet can affect many organs in the body. Since the diagnosis of celiac disease is often delayed, there can be significant issues with iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis because of decreased levels of calcium and vitamin D and poor growth and development. Untreated, celiac disease can cause:
- Loss of calcium and bone density;
- Infertility and miscarriage;
- Lactose intolerance; or
Celiac disease can affect anyone. However, it tends to be more common in people who have:
- A family member with celiac disease or dermatitis herpetiformis;
- Type 1 diabetes;
- Down syndrome;
- Turner syndrome;
- Autoimmune thyroid disease;
- Sjogren's syndrome;
- Microscopic colitis.