Celiac (pronounced SEE-lee-yak) disease, also called celiac sprue, is a chronic toxic reaction in the small intestine that’s triggered by gliadin, a component in gluten found in wheat and wheat products, rye, oats and barley. The intestine can’t break down the gliadin, and undigested gliadin damages the lining of the small intestine, which causes malabsorption: water and nutrients aren’t properly absorbed by the intestine.
The ailment usually surfaces during infancy or early childhood, shortly after the child begins eating food containing gluten. Symptoms typically diminish or disappear in late childhood, but then reappear in the third to sixth decade.
The prevalence of celiac disease isn’t known. It’s estimated to affect about 1 in 3,000 people, but many cases may not be diagnosed because symptoms are mild or absent. The disease primarily affects whites of northwestern European heritage; it rarely affects African-Americans, Asians or Jews. Twice as many females develop it as men.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
- Diarrhea that may be chronic or intermittent, pale and foul-smelling
- Fatty stools (steatorrhea)
- Loss of appetite; weight loss
- Mouth ulcers
- Bloating and distention
- Abdominal pain
- In infants and children: gastrointestinal distress after starting to eat cereal and failure to gain weight or grow properly
What Causes Celiac Disease?
The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, but it appears to be a type of autoimmune disease. The disease appears to run in families, so it probably has a genetic component, but how it is passed on hasn’t been determined.
What If You Do Nothing?
Celiac disease is difficult to diagnose but relatively easy to treat, and so should not be ignored. Untreated celiac disease can lead to malabsorption of necessary nutrients, weight loss, fatigue, and retarded growth.
Home Remedies for Celiac Disease
Treatment for children and adults is the same. After a diagnosis from a gastroenterologist, the following measures will restore normal absorption and bowel function within a few months.
- Go gluten-free. This means absolutely avoiding any foods made with wheat, barley, rye, or oats. You will feel better in two to four weeks, and be symptom-free within a year.
- Be careful of hidden gluten. Even small amounts of gluten can cause an adverse reaction, so you need to be aware of products that contain hidden sources of gluten. These range from some soy sauces and vinegars to the backing on postage stamps and even the flour used on chewing gum (which keeps it from sticking to the wrapper). Wheat flour is also used in hundreds of prepared foods, but its presence may not always be indicated on a food label. Information on these foods can be obtained from celiac sprue organizations and books on gluten-free diets. A good dietician can also be helpful.
- Buy gluten-free products. This may add time to your shopping at first, but you will quickly learn what you can and cannot eat. Specialty mail-order companies have a wide variety of gluten-free products, including those made with safe substitutes such as rice, corn, and soybean flours.
- Speak up. When eating out or traveling by plane, tell your waiter or flight attendant about your special dietary needs.
- Avoid foods you aren’t sure about. If you can’t be sure a food is gluten-free, don’t eat it.
In August 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a new standard definition for the term "gluten-free" on food labels. In order to be labeled, "gluten-free," or use the terms, "no gluten," "free of gluten," or "without gluten," a food must contain less than 20 parts of gluten per million. Manufacturers have one year from the publication of this regulation to bring all food labels in compliance. According to the FDA, may foods labeled as gluten-free already meet the new requirement.
Celiac Disease Prevention
There is no way to prevent celiac disease. However, you can avoid celiac flare-ups by maintaining a gluten-free diet.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if you suddenly lose your appetite and develop persistent, runny, foul-smelling diarrhea. If you already have celiac disease and are following a gluten-free diet for at least three weeks, contact your physician if new abdominal pain, diarrhea, or weight loss begins. Also contact your physician if your child does not improve within a few days after gluten has been removed from the daily diet.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Celiac disease is extremely difficult to diagnose and often goes undiagnosed for years. For testing, you should go to a gastroenterologist or—for a child—a pediatric gastroenterologist. After taking a thorough history, the doctor will test your blood for antibodies and their response to gluten. In order to make a positive diagnosis, a biopsy of the small intestine will be performed. If it is positive, over the next few months the physician will then monitor your response to a gluten-free diet.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media