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About Celiac Disease

What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine. People with celiac disease cannot tolerate a protein called gluten. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, his/her immune system responds in a way that results in damage to the villi of the small intestine. These tiny, hair-like protrusions that line the small intestine are necessary for absorption of nutrients from food. When a person has celiac disease, the damaged villi are flattened to a degree that they are less effective at absorbing the nutrients. A person can then become malnourished, regardless of how much food he/she eats.

How serious is celiac disease?
The symptoms of celiac disease range from being minimal to being life-threatening. An autoimmune disease is a disease that results when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues. Celiac disease is considered to be an autoimmune disease because the small intestine is being damaged by one’s own body. The inability to absorb nutrients due to intestinal damage can lead to serious health problems, including anemia, osteoporosis, neurological complications and other vitamin and mineral deficiencies. People with untreated celiac disease are also at a greater risk for developing certain types of cancer, especially intestinal lymphoma and bowel cancer, as well as other autoimmune diseases. See a list of related to celiac disease.

What are the causes of celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a genetic disease which can appear at any time in a person’s life. For the disease to develop, the ingestion of gluten is necessary. However, one can have the genes for celiac disease, eat gluten throughout life, but never develop symptoms. It is thought that an environmental trigger plays a role in the development of celiac disease. This trigger could be a stress on the body, for example, like surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, a viral infection, or severe emotional stress.

What is the treatment for celiac disease?
The good news about celiac disease is that it can be treated with a change in diet. A 100% gluten-free diet must be maintained at all times for a person diagnosed with celiac disease. Sometimes this is all the treatment a person needs to return to optimal health. Some people, however, may have developed other conditions as a result of their celiac disease that require additional forms of treatment.

How many people have celiac disease?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) consensus statement on celiac disease, the disease is present in roughly 1% of the population. The number of people who are gluten-sensitive, that is, people who have some kind of immune reaction to gluten but maybe not at levels that are diagnosable by the current testing methods, is thought to be much higher.

How does one get tested for celiac disease?
Find out about testing for celiac disease, and read our Ask the Doctor column.

Where can I find more information about celiac disease?
For more information about celiac disease, please visit the other links on our site, or visit any of the following sites:
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)
Celiac Disease Foundation
The Mayo Clinic
Gluten Intolerance Group

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