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Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which people are unable to tolerate gluten. Autoimmune means that the immune system, which is normally the body’s natural defense mechanism, reacts to gluten in a way that causes inflammation of the intestines, irritation and swelling. Over time the lining of the intestine is damaged and the person can no longer absorb nutrients. The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, but it does run in families and researchers believe there may be a genetic component. Symptoms vary from digestive problems (e.g., diarrhea, bloating) to symptoms of poor nutrition (e.g., low red blood cell count, bone or joint pain, feeling tired). Sometimes the autoimmune reaction can spread outside of the intestine and affect other areas of the body like the spleen, skin and nervous system.
A healthcare provider diagnoses celiac disease using a combination of the medical and family history, a physical exam, blood tests, a biopsy of intestinal tissue and a skin biopsy. The skin biopsy tests for a related condition called dermatitis herpetiformis – an itchy, blistering skin rash that affects those with celiac disease.
Most people with celiac disease experience significant improvement in their symptoms by following a gluten-free diet. This diet change can be overwhelming for patients since gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye, are ingredients found in many foods. To help ease this transition for you, our providers usually refer people with celiac disease to a dietitian who will help educate you on following a healthy and nutritious diet that is suitable to your needs. Luckily, gluten-free options have become more accessible over the past decade and can be easier to spot in many grocery stores with designated labels or sections. Once you learn how to shop and what you can and cannot eat, the diet becomes part of your lifestyle and you will still be able to enjoy meals and gatherings.