Better Me

Are Your Stomach Symptoms a Sign of Celiac Disease?

You can’t seem to go more than a few days without dealing with diarrhea. And maybe you’re also facing abdominal pain, headaches, fatigue, nausea, and joint pain. Could you have celiac disease?

Possibly, said Veronika Panah, MD, a gastroenterologist at Banner Health Clinic in Colorado, “about one in 100 people have celiac disease, and the diagnosis is on the rise.”

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune condition. With it, if you eat wheat, barley, rye, or other foods that contain gluten, your small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged. You can have trouble absorbing nutrients.

Because celiac disease is genetic, you can’t prevent it. But you can manage your symptoms and keep the damage from getting worse by eating a gluten-free diet. When you don’t eat gluten, the damage to your small intestine can heal.

It’s important to recognize the difference between celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Both conditions can have the same symptoms, and you can treat both by not eating gluten. But celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, while gluten intolerance is a sensitivity.

With celiac disease, you need to completely avoid gluten. With gluten intolerance, you can experiment to find the amount of gluten you can tolerate without triggering symptoms.

If you don’t have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, there’s no reason to avoid gluten. Some people use a gluten-free diet to lose weight, but it’s most likely not giving up gluten that’s causing weight loss. It’s giving up the less-healthy processed foods that contain gluten, like white bread and snack chips.

How is celiac disease diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects celiac disease, blood tests and an endoscopy—a scan of the inside of your small intestine—can determine whether you have the condition.

Not everyone with celiac disease has symptoms. Sometimes, doctors spot problems like anemia or elevated liver enzymes on routine bloodwork and it turns out that celiac disease is to blame.

How is celiac disease treated?

To protect your small intestine and avoid symptoms, you need to avoid all gluten. That means avoiding wheat, barley, rye, most oats, and yeast. “This can be difficult as these are ingredients in many common foods, so you need to read nutrition labels carefully,” Dr. Panah said. “It can be a challenging lifestyle at first because you have to learn to eat in a whole different way.” But it’s not insurmountable. These days, you can find a lot of gluten-free products in grocery stores and restaurants.

If you have celiac disease, it’s important to avoid all gluten—even a crumb could trigger symptoms. And untreated, celiac disease can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, and even cancers or lymphoma of the small intestine. Celiac disease can also cause nutritional deficiencies, so you will probably need vitamin supplements.

The bottom line

Celiac disease is on the rise, but you can treat it by completely avoiding gluten. With treatment, you can get your symptoms under control. If you need help finding out what’s causing your gastrointestinal trouble, connect with a physician at Banner Health.

To learn more about the links between the foods you eat and the way you feel, check out:

Gastroenterology Nutrition Genetics