What it is
People who have celiac disease (also known as celiac sprue) can't tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is even in some medicines. When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products that have gluten in them, the immune system responds by damaging the lining of the small intestine. This damage interferes with the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food. As a result, a person with celiac disease becomes malnourished, no matter how much food she eats.
Who is at risk?
Celiac disease runs in families. Sometimes the disease is triggered—or becomes active for the first time—after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, a viral infection, or severe emotional stress.
Celiac disease affects people differently. Symptoms may occur in the digestive system or in other parts of the body. For example, one person might have diarrhea and abdominal pain, whereas another may be irritable or depressed. Some people have no symptoms.
Because malnutrition affects many parts of the body, the impact of celiac disease goes beyond the digestive system. Celiac disease can lead to anemia or the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. Women with celiac disease may face infertility or miscarriage.
The only treatment for celiac disease is to follow a gluten-free diet. If you have celiac disease, work with your doctor or a dietitian to develop a gluten-free diet plan. A dietitian can help you learn how to read ingredient lists and identify foods
that contain gluten. These skills will help you make the right choices at the grocery store and when eating out.
Sources: National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC); The National Women's Health Information Center (www.womenshealth.org)