Celiac disease is a disease that damages the small intestine because of a sensitivity to gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. This disorder interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food and is caused when tiny fingerlike protrusions, called villi (which line the small intestine and enable the absorption of nutrients from food into the bloodstream) are lost.
Celiac disease is a genetic disease that is often underdiagnosed. A person can have the disease without knowing, until it is triggered by situations like severe stress, pregnancy, surgery, physical injury, infection or childbirth.
Celiac disease affects people in different ways but symptoms often include chronic diarrhea or constipation, weight loss, recurring abdominal pain, bloating and gas, pale, foul-smelling stool, unexplained anemia, muscle cramps and/or bone pain and missed menstrual periods. Often people with celiac disease are asymptomatic because the undamaged part of the small intestine is still able to absorb enough nutrients; however, these people are still at risk for complications of the disease.
Since symptoms of celiac disease are similar to those of other digestive diseases, it can be difficult to diagnose. Diagnostic procedures for celiac disease may include blood work or biopsy of the small intestine. For most people, eliminating gluten from their diet will stop symptoms, heal intestinal damage that has already occurred and prevent further damage. Usually, a person will see an improvement in symptoms within days of starting the diet and, within three to six months, the small intestine is usually completely healed, with villi intact and working. For older people, complete healing may take up to two years.