Woman sits on side of couch with her hands on her abdomen as if in pain.

Stomach Ails? It Could Be Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a fairly common condition in the United States: Estimates show that one out of every 133 Americans lives with this autoimmune digestive disorder. And cases of celiac, particularly among women and children, are going up.

But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s easy to live with — or easy to spot (many people with celiac are actually undiagnosed). Have you been experiencing symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, or lactose intolerance? In honor of Celiac Disease Awareness Month this May, let’s learn the basics you need to know about celiac disease.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a chronic or lifelong illness in which gluten damages the small intestine. It’s considered both a digestive disorder and an immune disorder, and it’s different from having a gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy.

When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, their body stimulates an immune response and attacks the small intestine. This damages the part of the small intestine that helps absorb nutrients — meaning nutrients can’t be correctly absorbed into the body.

Causes and Predispositions

97% of people with celiac have an associated gene mutation (HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8). Celiac disease is hereditary, and you have a 10% chance of developing celiac yourself if a first-degree relative has this condition.

Some people are more likely to develop celiac than others. These include:

  • People of Northern European descent
  • People with Down syndrome or other chromosomal disorders
  • Women

Often, people notice that their disease was “triggered” — in other words, they can pinpoint that their celiac symptoms began after a stressful, physical life event (maybe surgery or pregnancy).

Comorbid Conditions

Often, people who have celiac are more likely to also have other immune-related conditions, too. These include:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Thyroid diseases (Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease, Addison’s disease, primary hyperparathyroidism)
  • Selective immunoglobulin A (IgA) deficiency
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Liver diseases (autoimmune hepatitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis, primary biliary cholangitis)


If celiac disease is not properly treated, it can cause additional health problems in your body. Untreated celiac disease may lead to:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Anemia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Infertility or miscarriage
  • Epilepsy
  • Migraines

People with celiac disease also have a 2x greater risk of developing coronary artery disease and a 4x greater risk of developing small bowel cancers.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

Common symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Constipation
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Greasy or foul-smelling stools
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea or vomiting

Children with celiac might also exhibit weight loss, delayed puberty, or mood changes due to the lack of nutrients.

How Is Celiac Disease Diagnosed?

If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of celiac, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. He or she will likely send you to a gastrointestinal (GI) specialist — a doctor who treats disorders of the stomach, intestine, and other parts of your GI tract.

Celiac disease can show up on a simple blood test. But to confirm the diagnosis, your doctor will likely conduct an upper endoscopy, too. For this test, they’ll put you to sleep and run a small camera down your throat. Your doctor will biopsy your small intestine to look for damage caused by gluten.

Early diagnosis is important. The earlier in life someone is diagnosed with celiac, the lower their chance of developing another autoimmune condition.

Celiac Disease Treatment

The only way to treat celiac disease is by avoiding gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. You’ll usually find gluten in foods such as:

  • Pasta
  • Noodles
  • Bread
  • Pastries and baked goods
  • Crackers
  • Sauces, soups, and gravies
  • Beer
  • Granola bars and candy bars

Sometimes, gluten even sneaks into non-food items, like lip balm or Play-Dough. If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, you’ll need to get accustomed to carefully reading the labels of anything that goes in or on your body. Cutting gluten completely out of your diet usually helps celiac symptoms improve and, for some people, possibly even go away.

In some cases, your doctor might recommend nutritional supplements to help your vitamin levels even out, or steroids to treat severe inflammation.

Lifestyle and Coping Tips For Celiac Disease

It can be difficult to follow a special, medically-prescribed diet and still enjoy social situations with friends and family. Consider suggesting gluten-free restaurants for the group to try together. If you’re at a traditional restaurant, or at a friend’s house, speak up and make sure that no cooking equipment is shared (this increases the risk of cross-contamination).

Search online or in your community for a support group of people who also live with celiac. This is a great way to connect with others who understand what you’re going through. You might also consider working with a professional nutritionist or dietitian (ask your GI doctor for a recommendation) who can help you navigate the gluten-free life and get all of the calories and nutrients you need.

Celiac disease is a serious medical condition that needs to be treated properly and responsibly. But even with celiac, it’s still completely possible to live a full (and delicious) life!

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