Autoimmune diseases

Celiac disease

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease (pronounced see-lee-ak) is a condition that affects the small intestine as a result of hypersensitivity to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, oats, rye and barley. It damages the mucous membrane of the intestines of those with celiac disease. This is due to a specific immune system response to one of the building blocks of gluten, namely the amino acid gliadin. It can even completely destroy the intestinal mucosa.

The poor absorption of important nutrients can cause many complaints (see below). The Dutch name for celiac disease is gluten sensitivity thrush, non-tropical thrush or gluten intolerance. Celiac disease can manifest itself in both childhood and adulthood.

The food industry uses a lot of gluten. It is one of the most common instances of food allergy. Gluten intolerance can occur as soon as a child is given food containing gluten, like wheat flour, porridge or bread. It can therefore occur at a very young age, even as young as eight months. In the Netherlands, approximately 10,000 people have been diagnosed with celiac disease; however, the number of people who are not aware they have celiac disease is probably much higher. Their complaints are often so vague that the possibility of their having celiac disease is not even considered. Gluten intolerance can also develop in old age.

Celiac disease is a hereditary disease: first-degree relatives have a greater chance of developing celiac disease. Two thirds of people with celiac disease are women.

Symptoms related to celiac disease

People with celiac disease have a range of complaints and symptoms. In babies with celiac disease, the large amount of smelly, fatty and often foamy stools, which are usually produced several times a day, are notable.

Furthermore, children who suffer gluten intolerance have a distended abdomen, they have little appetite, vomit frequently, are underweight, have growth disorders and thin limbs. They usually have diarrhoea and are sometimes constipated. They cry often and are frequently moody. A gluten intolerance can present in many ways. Stunted growth, delayed puberty and underdeveloped dental enamel occur in severe, prolonged cases.

In adults, the symptoms are more general: diarrhoea, weight loss, anaemia, fatigue, moodiness, ‘bone pain’ , irregular menstrual periods, abnormality of the oral mucosa and a general feeling of being unwell. Sometimes they suffer gluten-sensitive small intestinal disorders, without any complaints.

Their complaints are often so vague that the possibility of their having celiac disease is not even considered.
The solution lies in a gluten-free diet. By no longer eating gluten, the body recovers. People who suffer vague complaints and switch to a gluten-free diet, also notice an improvement. Incidentally, it takes at least one to two years for the intestinal mucosa to fully recover.

Celiac disease or gluten intolerance is a chronic disease; the gluten-free diet must therefore be maintained for life.

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