What Is Celiac Disease—and How Do You Know if You Have It?

Celiac disease wreaks havoc on the digestive system—and on health.

When a person with this autoimmune disease ingests gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye), the immune system responds as if the body is in danger and attacks the lining of the small intestine. The damaged intestine can no longer properly absorb nutrients, which can lead to serious health problems.

About one in 133 people has celiac disease. Symptoms include diarrhea and/or constipation, abdominal pain, gas, irritability, anemia, bloating, joint pain, mouth sores, depression, fatigue, and tingling in the feet and legs.

Those most at risk for celiac disease are people with a family history of it, those with Down syndrome, anyone with Type 1 diabetes, people with endocrine disorders (such as thyroid and Addison’s diseases), men and women with fertility issues, and those with other autoimmune disorders, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. 

The disease can manifest at any time in the life cycle and is sometimes triggered by stressful situations such as pregnancy, childbirth, and surgery.

What to Do

If you think you have celiac disease, ask your doctor for a blood test. Continue eating food containing gluten before the test so that the results don’t come back as normal.

If you’ve gone gluten free for a long period already and don’t want to reintroduce it into your diet, genetic testing may be a better option. If your blood test is positive, a small-bowel biopsy should be arranged to confirm the diagnosis and determine intestinal damage. Continue to eat a diet containing gluten until the biopsy, after which you can embark on a gluten-free diet.

Be sure to have your blood levels tested for iron, folic acid, vitamin B12, and calcium deficiencies that may have resulted from the disease.

Surviving & Thriving

There’s no known cure for celiac disease, but it can be managed by adhering to a strict, gluten-free diet. Additionally, some people with celiac disease may be lactose intolerant, so avoiding cow’s milk will reduce symptom flare-ups.

Children with celiac disease often experience short stature and delayed puberty, but studies show that adopting a gluten-free diet usually leads to a rapid catch-up in growth.

Sudden Increase?

Experts don’t know why celiac disease is becoming more common. Some believe it may be due to changes in the way wheat is grown and processed. It may also be because gluten—present in so many processed foods—now saturates our diets. Another explanation is that the increasingly germ-free environment of modern life may be causing more allergies, asthma, and abnormal immune system reactions.