By Tara L. Lautenslager, MD
Celiac disease is an immune reaction to the protein gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. People who develop celiac disease have specific genes linked to this condition. Approximately 1 percent of the population has celiac disease. The immune reaction causes inflammation that leads to damage of the small intestine. In some cases, this damage can lead to malabsorption of fluids and nutrients. Symptoms of celiac disease vary, but the most common symptoms include chronic diarrhea, weight loss, abdominal pain after eating, and bloating. Testing for celiac disease is recommended for individuals with any combination of these symptoms or if they have a first-degree relative with celiac disease. Other reasons to test for celiac disease include iron deficiency, elevated liver enzymes without another source, or the presence of type 1 diabetes mellitus with digestive symptoms. The diagnosis is made by measuring high levels of specific antibodies in the blood or by biopsies of the small intestine obtained during an upper endoscopy. The treatment for celiac disease is following a gluten-free diet for life (avoiding any food made with wheat, barely, or rye). By eliminating gluten, the inflammation resolves, and the small intestine is able to heal and symptoms improve. There are many foods that contain gluten — check labels carefully. Meet with a nutritionist to help you review your diet and to provide you with a list of gluten-free foods. For more information, check out the Celiac Disease Foundation website at www.celiac.org.