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The Basics of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease affects 1% of healthy, average Americans. This means at least 3 million people are living with Celiac disease and 97% of them are probably undiagnosed. To put Celiac Disease in perspective, consider these facts from the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.

  • Type 1 Diabetes affects 3 million people. 6% (180,000) of those diagnosed also have Celiac disease.
  • 610,000 women in the U.S. experience unexplained infertility. 6% (36,600) of these women might never know that Celiac disease is the cause.
  • 350,000 people in the United States have Down Syndrome. 12% (42,000) of them also have Celiac disease.
  • The number of people with Celiac disease in the U.S. would fill 4,400 Boeing 747 airplanes.
  • The number of people with Celiac disease in the U.S is about equal to the number of people living in the state of Nevada.

What is Celiac Disease?

According to the University of Chicago,

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine. When a person who has Celiac disease consumes gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, the individual’s immune system responds by attacking the small intestine and inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients into the body. Undiagnosed and untreated, Celiac disease can lead to the development of other autoimmune disorders as well as osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions and in rare cases, cancer.

When the immune system overreacts to gluten the villi that line the small intestine are damaged. These villi are tiny, hair-like projections that absorb vitamins, minerals and nutrients from food. This results in the body being unable to absorb nutrients needed for growth and health.

Could You Have Celiac Disease?

Signs & Symptoms

There is no one sign or symptom that can for sure indicate a person has Celiac disease. In fact, the signs and symptoms of this disease can vary greatly. Classic signs include diarrhea and weight loss although most people who have Celiac disease experience few or no digestive signs or symptoms. Only 1/3 of people diagnosed with Celiac experience diarrhea and only about half will have weight loss. 20% experience constipation and 10% are obese. Other signs and symptoms of Celiac disease include:

  • Anemia
  • Loss of bone density
  • Itchy, blistery skin rash
  • Damage to dental enamel
  • Headaches and fatigue
  • Acid reflux and heart burn

Celiac in Children

75% of children with Celiac disease are overweight or obese. Digestive signs and symptoms are more prevalent in children with Celiac disease and they often will experience diarrhea and constipation in addition to short stature and delayed puberty.

Risk Factors

Celiac disease is more common in individuals who have:

  • A family member with Celiac disease or Dermatitis Herpetiformis
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Down syndrome
  • An autoimmune thyroid disease


There are a few different tests that can be done to determine if you might have Celiac Disease.

  1. Blood Tests. High levels of certain antibodies in the blood can indicate an immune response to gluten.
  2. Endoscopy. A doctor might order an endoscopy if your blood work indicates you could have Celiac disease. They may take a sample of your small intestine to analyze the villi.
  3. Capsule endoscopy. This method uses a tiny, wireless camera to photograph your small intestine. You swallow the capsule and the camera takes thousands of pictures that are transmitted to a recorder.


The main complication of Celiac disease is nutrient deficiency. When Celiac disease goes untreated, any of the following can occur.

  • Malnutrition. Small intestine damage that occurs leads to poor nutrient absorption. This can also lead to anemia and weight loss. Malnutrition can be especially harmful to children as it can delay growth and stunt development. 
  • Loss of calcium and bone density. Intestinal damage makes it more difficult to absorb calcium and vitamin D which can lead to bone softening and eventually osteoporosis.
  • Infertility and miscarriage. Trouble absorbing vitamin D and calcium can also play a role in reproductive issues.
  • Lactose intolerance. Small intestine damage may cause abdominal pain and diarrhea after eating foods that contain lactose. This can happen even if the foods don’t contain gluten.
  • Cancer. Intestinal lymphoma and small bowel cancer may be more prevalent in people with Celiac disease who do not maintain a gluten-free diet.

Treatment Options

The most important thing for people with Celiac is to eat a gluten-free diet. Wheat contains gluten but gluten can also be found in Barley, Bulgar, Durum, Farina, Graham Flour, Malt, Rye, Semolina, Spelt and Triticale.

People with severe nutritional deficiencies may also benefit from supplements such as:

No two cases of Celiac disease are the same. The signs and symptoms are different in everyone and it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider to determine the treatment that is best for you.

Do you have Celiac disease? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your story!

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6 Responses to The Basics of Celiac Disease

  1. Narie Rey June 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    It is my belief (and personal experience) that there may be many individuals with gluten allergy who do not technically have celiac, and who’s gluten intolerance may be acquired and not inherited.

    Damage to healthy gut bacteria from a history of antibiotic use, and low stomach acid levels (disfunctionally-low HCl, also known as GERD) that impair normal digestion may be likely contributors to gluten allergy development.

    My journey in healing autoimmune thyroid disease led to my awareness of my gluten allergy and I had NO symptoms! But through elimination of all gluten and corn products, I not only reversed thyroid disease without hormones, but also retored my 45 year old eyes to their high school Rx, normalized my hormones and eliminated my hot flashes, reabsorbed my horrible spider veins, healed my Reynards syndrome and saw my arthritis gone, got a flat belly, enjoyed shiny hair, whiter teeth, moister skin, had MUCH MORE ENERGY and lost 25 pounds without changing my exercise routine or calories!

    It’s important to note that gluten and corn have many names and you must learn and avoid them all! Small amounts become inflammatory triggers that keep the diseases going, so “cutting back” does little to change anything. Also, it takes approximately 6 months to effectively eliminate these from your system but you should see changes in 6-8 weeks if you avoid these foods and their derivatives 100%.

    It’s been 6 years on a gluten and corn free lifestyle (cow’s dairy too now) and I would not trade a single food experience for feeling this good! I look and feel better than I ever have at nearly 50!

    • Jerry February 28, 2016 at 4:32 pm #

      Hello. I realize this post is several years old, but if anyone still reads it, I am curious about something. If you, Narie Rey happen to read this, I am wondering how long it was before you noticed a difference in your spider veins? Also, has anyone had varicose veins resolve by eliminating gluten? If so, how long had you suffered from them, and how long did they take to resolve? Thank you.

      • Traci May 19, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

        Hi Jerry! I am curious about this as well. Did you ever hear back?

  2. Narie Rey June 7, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    BTW my blood tests for gluten allergy were both negative! – And there are MANY false negatives…though positive tests are indeed indicators that you have a gluten allergy.

  3. Laura Miller June 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    Thank you, Narie Rey for your comment! I’m glad to hear you are feeling so well! Thanks for reading 🙂


  1. Is Gluten Intolerance the same as Celiac Disease? | Healthy Concepts with a Nutrition Bias - July 16, 2013

    […] People who are gluten intolerant and people who have Celiac disease are both sensitive to gluten and often have similar symptoms. The biggest difference between the two is that those who have Celiac disease have damage to the villi of the small intestine. Those who are simply (or not so simply) gluten intolerant do not have the intestinal damage. A little confusing, right? This might explain why receiving a diagnosis of Celiac disease can be so difficult. This post will focus on gluten sensitivity and the issues that surround it but if you are interested in reading more about Celiac disease, check out our Celiac blog post! […]

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