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What Is Celiac Disease?

This genetic digestive disorder, also known as celiac sprue or gluten intolerance, causes damage to the small intestine and interferes with the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food, according to the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA).

Celiac disease runs in families. According to The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), it affects an estimated 1 in 133 individuals, both adults and children, in the United States, although some reports indicate a much higher number. Only about 3 percent of those who have celiac disease have been diagnosed, according to the CSA.

People with this disease can't tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye. When gluten is consumed, the body's immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine, which is covered with tiny tiny finger-like projections called villi. These villi, which absorb nutrients from food, are destroyed. The result is a smooth intestinal lining, which absorbs fewer nutrients. Left untreated, celiac disease can cause malnutrition, osteoporosis, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, infertility, intestinal cancer and other health problems. The damage progresses slowly and can begin at any age.

Symptoms vary widely, with no "typical" symptoms; the amount of the intestine affected and the degree of malnutrition influence the severity of the symptoms. They may include recurring abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, pale stools, muscle cramps, delayed growth in children and unexplained anemia. Because these symptoms are similar to those of other diseases, diagnosis can be difficult and is frequently delayed. Diagnosis usually requires your health care provider asking for detailed information about your medical history and symptoms. Blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine may also be required.

Research on celiac disease is ongoing, but, for right now, the only treatment is a gluten-free diet. Changing your eating habits may be a challenge, but it's important to make this life-long commitment. Even a small amount of gluten can cause damage, so the effort is worth it.