What Does Having Celiac Disease Actually Mean?

By English Taylor

We occasionally find ourselves vigorously nodding when someone mentions “celiac disease,” as if we’re total experts on the topic. “That has to do with gluten, right?”

Right — but if we’re being honest, we aren’t very well-versed in celiac disease beyond this and the gluten-free baked goodies at our favorite coffee shop (and Cali’Flour Foods pizza crusts, of course). Since May is Celiac Awareness Month, we decided to dig deeper into this autoimmune condition (yep — it actually has to do with the body’s immune system) by answering a few common questions like: what is celiac disease? What is gluten, actually? What are the symptoms and causes of Celiac disease? How can you treat and manage it?

Getting to the bottom of celiac disease

“Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine,” write experts at the Celiac Disease Foundation. “It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide.”

Here’s what celiac disease actually looks like in the body: When those with celiac disease eat gluten, it causes the body’s immune system to kick into gear. You may think of your immune system as your defense that fights to keep you healthy when a virus, like the flu, enters the body. But in the case of celiac disease, the immune system also gets triggered by gluten. Any condition caused by improper functioning of the immune system is known as an “autoimmune disorder,” like lupus and celiac disease.

Specifically, the immune system attacks the small intestine, which is lined with tiny, finger-like structures called “villi.” When food gets processed through the small intestine, villi help with nutrient absorption. However, when the immune system continually attacks the small intestine, the organ becomes inflamed and the villi become damaged and run down. Over time, they start to appear like small bumps rather than long fingers. As a result, the villi are no longer able to do their job — absorb nutrients — as effectively.

We should probably define “gluten” at this point, too. Gluten is actually a general term for the proteins found in wheat, barley, and triticale (fun fact: the last one is a cross between wheat and rye). Gluten can be an important ingredient because it helps foods maintain their shape — imagine the stretchy, spongy consistency of dough, for example. Many common foods like bread, crackers, cereal, cookies, pastries, cake, croutons, flour tortillas, beer, and pasta contain gluten, in addition to less suspecting items like sauces, salad dressings, and candy (just like your kids, gluten can occasionally be sneaky).

What happens when someone with celiac disease eats gluten?

This inability to properly absorb nutrients can result in a wide variety of symptoms — not just gastrointestinal, either (this is a common misconception). However, symptoms tend to vary between individuals. Here are some of the symptoms of celiac disease, as defined by The Cleveland Clinic:

Digestive problems (bloating, pain, gas, diarrhea, and weight loss)
A severe skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
Anemia (low blood count from the body’s inability to readily absorb iron)
Muscle cramps, joint, and bone pain
Tingling sensation in the feet, legs, and hands (caused by nerve damage and low calcium)
Sores or ulcers in the mouth
Missed menstrual periods

Due to these symptoms, those who struggle with celiac disease become vulnerable to other conditions and autoimmune disorders, like the following:

Osteoporosis (this occurs because the person has trouble absorbing enough calcium and vitamin D)
Birth defects (like neural tube defects, caused by poor absorption of nutrients like folic acid)
Growth problems in children because they aren’t absorbing enough nutrients
Thyroid disease
Type 1 diabetes
Rheumatoid arthritis
Liver disease
Cancer of the intestine (this is very rare)

What actually causes celiac disease?

Great question. Unfortunately, the medical community is still saying “TBD.” But here’s what The Mayo Clinic has to say on the subject: “Celiac disease occurs from an interaction between genes, eating foods with gluten, and other environmental factors, but the precise cause isn't known. Infant feeding practices, gastrointestinal infections, and gut bacteria might contribute to developing celiac disease. Sometimes celiac disease is triggered — or becomes active for the first time — after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection or severe emotional stress.”

Doctors know that celiac disease can be genetic. Meaning, it runs in families. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, people with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (like your mom, dad, brother, or sister) have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disease.

So what does all this mean for me?

While you can’t control your genes, you can take actionable steps to educate yourself and get diagnosed, if you’re worried you may have celiac disease. Learning more about the condition and its accompanying symptoms is a great place to start — we’re glad you’re here. After all, knowledge is power. While the term “diagnosis” may sound scary, it’s often the first step in finally starting to feel better. Eating a strict gluten-free diet and adhering to it over the course of one’s lifetime is shown to be the best form of treatment, as there’s no current cure for celiac disease.

If you’re concerned you have celiac disease, check out this symptom checklist from the Celiac Disease Foundation. From there, you can make an appointment with your doctor to talk about next steps, which may be ordering a blood test in order to officially diagnose. For those of you currently struggling with celiac disease — we’re here for you. Not only are we committed to offering you tasty food options that meet your dietary needs, but we’re also passionate about educating the community about what you’re experiencing.

Whether you have celiac disease or not, the next time it’s brought up in conversation, you’ll have plenty to add besides a nod and, “Mmmhmm...that has to do with gluten.” Consider sharing this article to promote even more understanding of this serious condition.

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