What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease (also known as celiac sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy) is a digestive and autoimmune disorder. An autoimmune disorder is one in which the immune system directs antibodies (substances produced by the immune system to fight harmful invaders) to attack the body. The antibody of celiac disease is directed against gluten, a protein found in grains.

What are the causes of celiac disease?

Normally, the body's immune system is designed to protect it from foreign invaders. When people with celiac disease eat foods that contain gluten, their immune system forms antibodies to gluten, which then attack the lining of the intestine. This causes inflammation (swelling) in the intestines and damages the villi, the hair-like structures on the lining of the small intestine. Nutrients from food are absorbed by the villi; if the villi are damaged, the person cannot absorb nutrients and ends up malnourished, no matter how much he or she eats.

Other causes of malabsorption include:

  • Heredity (a close relative who has the disease).
  • Medical procedures such as surgery, pregnancy, or childbirth.
  • Diseases such as viral infections.

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

Symptoms of celiac disease vary among sufferers and include:

  • Digestive problems (abdominal bloating, pain, gas, diarrhea, pale stools, and weight loss).
  • A severe skin rash called dermatitis herpitiformis.
  • Anemia (low blood count).
  • Musculoskeletal problems (muscle cramps, joint and bone pain).
  • Growth problems and failure to thrive (in children).
  • Seizures.
  • Tingling sensation in the legs (caused by nerve damage and low calcium).
  • Aphthous ulcers (sores in the mouth).
  • Missed menstrual periods.

What other health problems can accompany celiac disease?

Celiac disease can leave the patient vulnerable to other health problems, including:

  • Cancer of the intestine (very rare).
  • Osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones and leads to fractures. This occurs because the person has trouble absorbing enough calcium and vitamin D.
  • Miscarriage or infertility.
  • Birth defects, such as neural tube defects (improper formation of the spine) caused by poor absorption of such nutrients as folic acid.
  • Seizures.
  • Growth problems in children because they don't absorb enough nutrients.

People who have celiac disease may have other autoimmune diseases, including:

  • Thyroid disease.
  • Type 1 diabetes.
  • Lupus.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Liver disease.
  • Sjogren's syndrome (a disorder that causes insufficient moisture production by the glands).