What Is Celiac Disease?

Awareness about celiac disease has increased rapidly over the past decade, with more and more people realizing the negative effects gluten has on their health. Because gluten is in many food products we eat, many people grow accustomed to their discomfort and don’t realize how much gluten affects their bodies until they stop eating certain foods. 

Srinivas Raju, M.D. is a board-certified gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of S.W. Florida. In the 15 years since Dr. Raju joined the practice, he’s seen many patients afflicted with celiac disease, an immune disorder that affects the small intestine. Today, more than two million Americans are suffering from the disease and cases are on the rise.

While that number may seem large already, some researchers suggest that only about 30% of the population with celiac have a diagnosis and that there are still many sufferers who may not know they have it. When it comes to celiac disease, getting a diagnosis is vital to combating the symptoms of the disease–without it, many patients continue to eat the same foods and experience the same negative symptoms. 

While medications can help, Dr. Raju says, “the primary treatment (for celiac disease) is sticking to a gluten-free diet.” 

If you’ve been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance or experience discomfort after eating bread, cakes, cookies, or pasta, this blog will help shed some light on your condition and give you insight into how physicians like Dr. Raju treat celiac disease.

What Is Celiac Disease?

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, “Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people.” Dr. Raja agrees and adds, “Celiac disease relates to intolerance to gluten, which is present in our diets.” For many, the disorder can cause lifelong problems and ongoing discomfort if not treated properly.

When patients with the disease consume gluten, the illness causes an inflammatory immune response in the lower intestine. Over time, the chronic inflammation caused by celiac disease can diminish the small intestine’s ability to absorb food properly, causing malabsorption and a nutritional deficit.

The way celiac disease works may seem counterintuitive since the body’s immune system normally plays an important role in keeping us healthy. For instance, when a virus enters your body, your immune system reacts by sending white blood cells to fight off the illness. However, in the case of celiac disease, the immune system overreacts, causing an unhealthy bodily response that can cause more harm than good. 

A similar type of inflammation occurs in patients with allergies. An allergic response can cause your body to swell up or itch uncontrollably in response to stressors that are benign for most people. Although usually mild, some allergies can be dangerous.

The inflammatory response triggered by celiac disease is similar to allergies–however, the inflammation is localized within the small intestine. We don’t know why celiac disease affects some people and not others, but we do know that it tends to run in families. Celiac disease also occurs more frequently in people with:

  • Addison’s Disease
  • Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
  • Down or Turner Syndrome
  • Microscopic Colitis
  • Type 1 Diabetes
Image of assorted bread products that contain gluten, and could aggravate people afflicted with celiac disease.

What Is Gluten and Why Does It Make Me Sick?

Gluten is a protein found in barley, rye, and wheat products. It is present in many of the foods we eat and is even used in products that do not contain bread. For reference, the milder form of celiac disease is called gluten intolerance. If you have it, you may feel bloated, gassy, or even nauseous if you consume the following types of foods that contain gluten:

  • Baked goods like doughnuts and pies
  • Beers made with malted barley
  • Liquors distilled from wheat or using wheat products
  • Bread, including buns and flour tortillas
  • Cereals that contain wheat, including some oat products
  • Crackers, pretzels, and even some kinds of chips
  • Gravy products
  • Pasta

While many of these foods traditionally contain gluten, they can be made without gluten and will be marked gluten-free on the packaging.

When someone with a gluten tolerance consumes these products, they typically experience discomfort and bloating. More severe forms of gluten intolerance can damage the fine hairs in the small intestine, leading to chronic pain and more severe symptoms. 

Dr. Raja says, “People develop an abnormal immune response to the gluten present in our diet. For genetically predisposed individuals, this immune response can present as gas, bloating, diarrhea, and sometimes anemia.” While these are external symptoms that may seem benign, they are signs that greater damage may be occurring within the body.

Woman preparing dinner with breads and pasta on her counter.

How Do I Know if I Have Celiac Disease?

The best way to know if you have celiac disease is to seek help from a medical professional. Dr. Raja says, “A diagnosis can be made by checking your blood to see if you have the antibodies that are necessary for the diagnosis of celiac disease.” If these antibodies are found, your doctor may order one of two additional tests to confirm the diagnosis: 

  • An endoscopy, where a long tube with a camera is inserted down the throat to check out the small intestine
  • A capsule endoscopy, where you swallow a vitamin-sized camera that takes pictures of your digestive tract as it travels through the body

Celiac disease presents as long-term digestive discomfort or diarrhea for several weeks at a time. You may start to lose weight and experience cramping or even vomiting after eating gluten products. Children experience the same symptoms as adults and may develop bloating along with pale, foul-smelling bowel movements. 

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you should check in with your primary care doctor or a gastroenterologist. Left untreated, celiac disease can cause complications that negatively affect your life and health:

  • Decreased ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D, which can lead to bone softening and weakening 
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis, an itchy, blistering rash on the buttocks, elbows, knees, scalp, and torso
  • Infertility, miscarriage, or other reproductive health issues
  • Lactose intolerance or an allergic response to dairy (resulting from damage to the small intestine damage)
  • Malnutrition, which can lead to weight loss, poor health, and anemia
  • Nervous system issues such as seizures and nerve damage in the hands and feet

If you’re an adult with celiac disease, these problems can be serious–however, the condition has a greater impact on children whose growth may be affected by the disorder.

Woman researching celiac disease on her tablet while preparing dinner.

How Is Celiac Disease Treated?

Dr. Raja says that avoiding foods that trigger celiac disease is one of the most effective forms of treatment. By cutting out foods that make you sick, you can avoid the uncomfortable symptoms of celiac disease and reduce the long-term effects the disease has on your body.

For patients with celiac disease, working with a gastroenterologist and dietician will help identify what foods cause you to have an autoimmune response. Every patient responds differently, which is why individuals with the disease should work closely with a physician who can help them identify the foods that affect them the most.

With the help of a gastroenterologist, patients can develop a diet that avoids these foods altogether. However, some patients may require medication on top of dietary changes. In these cases, a doctor may prescribe:

  • Medication to control inflammation in the small intestine or relieve other symptoms
  • Vitamin supplements to compensate for nutritional deficiencies

Many patients with celiac disease live fulfilling lives with the help of dietary changes and medication. To keep your symptoms under control, it’s vital that you work alongside a gastroenterologist to develop a treatment plan that matches your lifestyle.  

Symptoms can change or worsen over time, so it’s important to stay in contact with your doctor and schedule regular checkups. As a gastroenterologist, Dr. Raja stresses that “monitoring the patient for any complications that arise out of celiac disease” is crucial to avoiding the pitfalls of this illness.

At Gastroenterology Associates of S.W. Florida, our team of physicians is standing by to help you through your illness and can provide treatments to lessen your discomfort.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms we’ve discussed or already have a celiac disease diagnosis, don’t hesitate to call us at 239-275-8882 or request an appointment online.


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