Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is a digestive condition that affects 3 million Americans. It is caused by an abnormal immune response to the consumption of gluten, a protein typically found in bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust and other similar foods. When people with celiac disease eat these foods, the result is often stomach pain, bloating and diarrhea.
"The symptoms of celiac disease are shared with a number of other conditions like Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and anemia," says Dr. Errol Korn, a gastroenterologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. "While it can often be difficult to diagnose celiac disease, a correct diagnosis is vital."
Know your risk
Celiac disease can develop anytime from infancy to adulthood. Women should especially be aware of the symptoms, as celiac disease can lead to complications with fertility and pregnancy.
Research has shown that those who suffer from certain conditions, regardless of gender, are at greater risk. These include:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Autoimmune thyroid disease
- Down syndrome
- Microscopic colitis
If you suspect celiac disease, ask your doctor for a blood test, called the TTG antibody test. The disease often has genetic implications, so family members of celiac patients should be especially mindful of being tested.
During this test, your doctor will take a tissue sample from your small intestine and measure its antibodies to a protein called tissue transglutaminase (TTG), found naturally in the body. Roughly 90 percent of the time, if the biopsy shows elevated levels of these antibodies, a diagnosis of celiac disease is confirmed.
Following a gluten-free diet
Although celiac disease has no cure, it can be effectively managed through diet. Adopting a gluten-free diet is the most popular strategy for combating celiac disease.
Gluten-free means avoiding all foods containing gluten, including the following:
- Wheat and all its forms (i.e., couscous, semolina, matzo, wheat bran)
Gluten may also be found in many surprising items like chicken broth, beer, soy sauce, salad dressing and other commonly used sauces, seasonings and spices. Your doctor or a dietitian will be able to provide you with a full list of foods to avoid. Once these foods have been removed from your diet, inflammation in your small intestine will begin to subside.
"Most patients feel better within a few days of eliminating foods that contain gluten from their diet," says Dr. Korn. "However, complete healing of your small intestine can take several months to two or three years."
If you are concerned you might be gluten-intolerant, talk to your doctor about diet management. Many restaurants and markets offer delicious gluten-free alternatives and people with celiac disease no longer feel they have to deny themselves at the dinner table.