A nursing friend and former colleague of mine has had celiac disease (CD) for quite some time.  I didn’t know much about the disorder until she went to Italy for a whole month and I learned about her eating habits while she was gone.  This is a disease that is more common than one would think.  It actually affects 1 in 133 people in the United States, and only 3% of these are diagnosed.  I also learned that it is an inherited disease, there is no cure, it can become active at any age BUT it can be treated.  Gluten is the culprit in this disease – it acts like poison to those that have it.  It is also known as gluten intolerance or celiac sprue.  The disorder is characterized by damage to the mucosal lining in the small intestine, which is known as villous atrophy.  Celiac disease raises havoc in the small intestine when you eat gluten.  It is responsible for the malabsorption of nutrients resulting in malnutrition.  Gluten is everywhere – you find it in wheat, rye, barley, oats, many processed foods and even medication! 

          The damage in the intestines keep your body from taking in many of the nutrients in the food you eat.  These include vitamins, calcium, protein, carbohydrates, fats and other important nutrients.  Obviously your body cannot work well without all of these nutrients.  Because celiac disease runs in families, you inherit the tendency to get the disorder from your parents.  Studies have shown that if one member of your family has the disorder, about one out of ten other members of your family is likely to have it.  Oddly enough you may have this tendency for awhile without getting sick, and then a certain event (severe stress, childbirth, infection, surgery or a physical injury) can bring on the symptoms of celiac disease.

          The disorder is hard to diagnose in the early stages, because the symptoms may be displayed by only slight anemia and an early onset of osteoporosis.  But later stages include the development of bleeding gums, stools that stick to the toilet bowl, green stools, bone pain and tenderness, bloating, foul smelling diarrhea, pronounced anemia, soreness of the lips and tongue, weight loss and dry, itchy skin.  This particular skin disorder is known as dermatitis herpetiformis and is normally very itchy.  It is characterized by bumps or blisters that usually appear on the knees, elbows, back and buttocks.  This skin disease tends to come and go, and it is almost always linked to celiac disease.  If your symptoms include dermatitis herpetiformis and others mentioned above, you probably have the disease if the signs go away when you follow a strict gluten-free diet.  Diagnosing celiac disease in the later stages will include an examination of the stool for fat, an x-ray of the bowel, blood tests and the most reliable for confirmation is a biopsy of the lining of the small intestine.

          A person with celiac disease should not eat most cereal, grain, pasta and many processed foods.  People with the disorder should also ask a pharmacist if their prescribed medications contain wheat.  There are numerous unexpected sources of wheat as well.  These include chewing gum, mustard, soy sauce, veggie burgers, imitation bacon, canned broth, laxatives, stamps and envelopes.  Celiac disease is a serious illness. Luckily you can control the disorder just by not eating any gluten.  If you follow the proper diet, you can reverse the damage caused by celiac disease and you’ll feel better.  But if you don’t adhere strictly to the diet, the damage will come back, even if you don’t feel sick right away.  Despite gluten restrictions, those who have celiac disease can eat a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods.  Potatoes, rice, soy, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and bean flour are all allowed.  Today you can buy gluten-free bread and pasta plus other products from stores that carry gluten-free products or they are easily found in organic stores.  “Plain” meat, rice, fruits, fish and vegetables do not contain gluten, so people with celiac disease can freely eat these foods.  If you would like to learn more about the proper nutrition and cooking with celiac disease, please visit the Celiac Sprue Association at

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  1. Ethel
    May 28th, 2010 at 18:56 | #1

    You forgot triticale and spelt as other grains with gluten in them, spelt is “wild” wheat that can shake its self loose from its hull, triticale is a hybrid of rye and wheat. I mention this as wheat free does not mean gluten free, spelt bread and spelt pasta, as with triticale, are just as harmful.

    Continuing to ingest gluten despite diagnosis is particularly onerous, having celiac disease alone raises your incidence of other auto-immune disorders but continuing to expose yourself means continued inflammatory response and the higher probability of other autoimmune disorders. Indeed there is a high rate of infertility with untreated celiac disease, and evidence the the immune system will attack placentas if the mother is untreated as well – never mind thyroid disorders, type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, etc… coming up. In other words, it’s not just malnutrition or treatment of symptoms that should keep you gluten free if you have celiac disease, it’s your total health that gets effected.

    • Stephanie Jewett, RN
      May 29th, 2010 at 09:14 | #2

      Thank you Ethel – you know much more about the disease than I do! Maybe I’ll do a follow-up to what is learned another day. I appreciate your input. Stephanie

  2. James
    June 7th, 2010 at 04:32 | #3

    Excellent information. But we are still assuming that certain genes like to travel together and therefore certain white cell antigens travel with the genetic determinants of celiac disease. Will there eventually be a specific chromosome test for celiac?


    • Stephanie Jewett, RN
      June 7th, 2010 at 12:59 | #4

      Good question and I’m not sure – I would think there would be in the near future. Stephanie

  3. July 29th, 2010 at 07:54 | #5

    There is a genetic test for celiac sprue that looks for the “HLA DQ genetic pattern.” However, this genetic test only shows that you have a predisposition for celiac, not necessarily that you will develop it. Also, I don’t know if there are very many labs that will conduct the genetic test, so you might need to “shop around.”

    Here is a link to the celiac medical experts in the U.S.

  4. July 29th, 2010 at 07:56 | #6

    Whoops. Here’s the list of celiac medical experts in the U.S.…/sept0603.pdf

  5. October 19th, 2010 at 03:28 | #7

    my mom and dad had been on a gluten free diet ever since they were kids::;

  6. November 8th, 2010 at 06:29 | #8

    gluten free foods are very helpful specially for those people that have very bad allergies to it _

  7. June 9th, 2011 at 15:11 | #9

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