Coeliac Disease Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Support

Coeliac disease, also known as celiac disease, is a chronic autoimmune disorder of the small intestine. It occurs in genetically predisposed individuals who are sensitive to gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. In this article, we will delve into the causes, symptoms, treatment, and support available for individuals living with coeliac disease.

Understanding Coeliac Disease

What is Coeliac Disease?

Coeliac disease is an immune system reaction triggered by consuming gluten. When individuals with coeliac disease consume gluten, their immune system mistakenly attacks the small intestine. This immune response damages the lining of the small intestine, leading to various gastrointestinal symptoms and nutrient malabsorption.

Coeliac disease is a chronic autoimmune disorder that affects individuals of all ages. It is not an allergy or an intolerance to gluten, but rather an autoimmune reaction. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, triggers the immune response in individuals with coeliac disease. This immune reaction causes inflammation and damage to the villi, tiny finger-like projections that line the small intestine.

The damage to the villi hinders the absorption of nutrients from food, leading to malabsorption. This can result in deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron, calcium, and vitamin D. Over time, if left untreated, coeliac disease can lead to serious complications, including osteoporosis, infertility, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer.

The Prevalence of Coeliac Disease

Coeliac disease affects people worldwide, with estimates suggesting that 1 in 100 individuals has the condition. However, it remains underdiagnosed, and many individuals may be unaware that they have coeliac disease, as symptoms can be vague or overlap with other conditions.

Coeliac disease can develop at any age, from infancy to adulthood. It is more common in individuals with a family history of the condition, as there is a genetic component to its development. If a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, has coeliac disease, the risk of developing the condition increases to about 1 in 10.

The symptoms of coeliac disease can vary widely among individuals. Some may experience classic gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating. Others may have non-gastrointestinal symptoms, including fatigue, anemia, joint pain, and skin rashes. In children, coeliac disease can also lead to growth problems and delayed puberty.

Diagnosing coeliac disease involves a combination of blood tests and a small intestine biopsy. Blood tests can detect the presence of certain antibodies that are associated with coeliac disease. If the blood tests indicate a potential diagnosis, a biopsy of the small intestine is performed to confirm the presence of villous atrophy, the characteristic damage caused by coeliac disease.

The treatment for coeliac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. This means avoiding all sources of gluten, including wheat, barley, rye, and any products that contain these grains. Following a gluten-free diet allows the small intestine to heal and reduces the risk of complications. It is important for individuals with coeliac disease to work closely with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian to ensure they are meeting their nutritional needs while adhering to a gluten-free lifestyle.

Living with coeliac disease can present challenges, as gluten is found in many common foods and ingredients. However, with proper education and support, individuals with coeliac disease can lead healthy and fulfilling lives. There are now many gluten-free alternatives available in grocery stores and restaurants, making it easier to navigate a gluten-free diet.

The Causes of Coeliac Disease

Coeliac disease, also known as celiac disease, is an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine. It is triggered by the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. While the exact cause of coeliac disease is not fully understood, research has identified several factors that contribute to its development.

Genetic Factors

Coeliac disease has a strong genetic component. Research has identified specific genetic markers, such as certain human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, that increase the risk of developing coeliac disease. These genes are involved in the immune system's response to gluten. However, it is important to note that not everyone with these genetic markers will develop the condition, indicating that other factors also play a role.

Scientists believe that there may be other genes involved in coeliac disease that have yet to be discovered. Ongoing research aims to uncover these genetic factors and understand how they contribute to the development of the disease.

Environmental Triggers

While genetics plays a significant role in coeliac disease, certain environmental factors are believed to trigger its development in genetically predisposed individuals. The primary trigger is the consumption of gluten. When individuals with coeliac disease consume gluten, their immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the small intestine, causing inflammation and damage.

However, it is not just the presence of gluten that triggers the immune response. The timing of gluten introduction may also influence disease development. Studies have suggested that introducing gluten to infants before they are four months old or after they are seven months old may increase the risk of developing coeliac disease. This highlights the importance of timing in the introduction of gluten-containing foods to infants.

Other Risk Factors

In addition to genetic and environmental factors, several other risk factors have been associated with an increased likelihood of developing coeliac disease. Having a family member with the condition, especially a first-degree relative like a parent or sibling, increases the risk. This suggests a hereditary component to the disease.

Furthermore, individuals with other autoimmune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or autoimmune thyroid disease, have a higher risk of developing coeliac disease. The presence of these conditions may indicate a shared underlying immune system dysfunction.

Other conditions, such as Down syndrome and Turner syndrome, have also been linked to an increased risk of coeliac disease. The reasons for these associations are not yet fully understood, but researchers believe that there may be shared genetic or immune system abnormalities that contribute to the development of both conditions.

In conclusion, coeliac disease is a complex disorder with multiple contributing factors. Genetic markers, environmental triggers like gluten consumption, and other risk factors such as family history and the presence of other autoimmune disorders all play a role in the development of this condition. Understanding these causes is crucial for early detection, management, and potential prevention of coeliac disease.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Coeliac Disease

Common Symptoms

Coeliac disease, also known as celiac disease, is an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine. It can cause a wide range of symptoms, both gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal. Common gastrointestinal symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, and weight loss. These symptoms occur due to the body's inability to properly digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.

In addition to gastrointestinal symptoms, coeliac disease can also manifest in various non-gastrointestinal ways. These symptoms can include fatigue, anemia, skin rash, and depression. Fatigue is a common complaint among individuals with coeliac disease, as the body's inability to absorb nutrients from food can lead to a lack of energy. Anemia, characterized by a low red blood cell count, can occur due to malabsorption of iron and other essential nutrients. Skin rash, known as dermatitis herpetiformis, is a common symptom in individuals with coeliac disease, and it is often intensely itchy and can cause blisters.

Less Common Symptoms

While the above symptoms are more commonly reported, coeliac disease can also manifest in less typical ways. Some individuals may experience joint pain, osteoporosis, infertility, or even neurological symptoms like migraines or peripheral neuropathy. Joint pain, also known as arthralgia, can occur due to inflammation triggered by the body's immune response to gluten. Osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weak and brittle bones, can develop in individuals with coeliac disease due to malabsorption of calcium and vitamin D. Infertility can be a result of hormonal imbalances caused by the disease. Neurological symptoms, such as migraines or peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage), can occur due to inflammation or nutrient deficiencies.

Symptoms in Children vs Adults

The presentation of coeliac disease can vary depending on age. Children with coeliac disease often experience digestive symptoms, along with failure to thrive, delayed growth, or irritability. Digestive symptoms in children can include chronic diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, and abdominal distension. Failure to thrive refers to inadequate weight gain or growth in children, which can be a result of malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies. Delayed growth can also be a consequence of the body's inability to absorb essential nutrients. Irritability is a common symptom in children with coeliac disease, and it can be attributed to the discomfort caused by gastrointestinal symptoms.

In contrast, adults may primarily show non-gastrointestinal symptoms, making diagnosis more challenging. Adults with coeliac disease may not experience obvious digestive symptoms, leading to delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis. Instead, they may present with symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, chronic fatigue, iron deficiency anemia, or depression. These non-gastrointestinal symptoms can often be attributed to malabsorption of nutrients and the body's immune response to gluten.

It is important to note that the symptoms of coeliac disease can vary greatly from person to person. Some individuals may experience only mild symptoms, while others may have severe and debilitating symptoms. If you suspect you may have coeliac disease, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and management.

Diagnosing Coeliac Disease

Medical History and Physical Examination

Diagnosing coeliac disease starts with a thorough medical history and physical examination. Healthcare providers will inquire about symptoms, family history, and any potential risk factors. They will also perform a clinical examination, looking for signs of nutrient deficiencies or other abnormalities.

Blood Tests

Blood tests are often used to screen for coeliac disease. The most commonly used blood test measures the levels of specific antibodies, such as tissue transglutaminase antibody (tTG-IgA). Elevated antibody levels suggest an immune response to gluten and increase the likelihood of coeliac disease.

Endoscopy and Biopsy

Confirming a diagnosis of coeliac disease typically involves an endoscopy and biopsy of the small intestine. During an endoscopy, a thin tube with a camera is inserted through the mouth and into the small intestine. A small tissue sample (biopsy) is taken and examined for the characteristic damage seen in coeliac disease.

Treatment and Support for Coeliac Disease

Currently, there is no cure for coeliac disease. Treatment involves adopting a strict gluten-free diet for life. By eliminating gluten from the diet, individuals with coeliac disease can promote gut healing, reduce symptoms, and prevent complications.

Adopting a gluten-free diet requires careful attention to food labels and avoiding cross-contamination. It's essential to consult with a registered dietitian experienced in coeliac disease management to receive guidance on food choices and meal planning.

In addition to dietary changes, individuals with coeliac disease may benefit from joining support groups or seeking counseling to manage the emotional and social aspects of living with a chronic condition. Support groups can provide a sense of community, share experiences, and offer practical tips.

In Conclusion

Coeliac disease is a complex autoimmune disorder influenced by genetic and environmental factors. The symptoms and presentation can vary, making diagnosis challenging. However, with the right diagnosis and support, individuals with coeliac disease can manage the condition effectively and lead a fulfilling life.

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