Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease to which some people have a genetic predisposition. It involves the small intestine and usually produces issues with the digestive process, although it can cause a wide range of symptoms. People with celiac disease have an intolerance to gliadin, a gluten protein that is in a wide variety of grains including wheat, barley, rye, and some oats. Unfortunately, the symptoms are hard to recognize and may be confused with other, less serious conditions such as indigestion. If not managed appropriately, celiac disease makes the body vulnerable to other diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, epilepsy, migraines, and in extreme cases, intestinal cancer. There is no cure for celiac disease; the only way to manage the condition is to adopt a gluten-free diet.
Loose Bowel Movements
People with celiac disease can experience chronic loose bowel movements unless they transition to a gluten-free diet. Their stool may be pale, watery, and malodorous. The body does not tolerate gluten and may not absorb fat, iron and other nutrients from food as well as healthy people do. Someone with this condition may become accustomed to passing loose stools and not realize they have the disease. This delay tends to cause complications later on.
Celiac patients also complain of bloating and abdominal fullness. This is another by-product of the impaired digestive process. Impaired digestion leads to the buildup of gases and fluid, mostly in the small intestines. The abdominal pressure thus produced may also cause cramping, pain, and in some cases, nausea. Many people attempt to use over-the-counter medications to alleviate these symptoms, but this is only a stop-gap measure.
About 50 percent of people with Celiac disease report chronic flatulence. When their small intestines are unable to absorb gluten-rich food satisfactorily, sugars like maltose, lactose, and sucrose pass into the colon. There, they ferment and produce hydrogen that is expelled through the rectum as flatulence. This symptom can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing. However, like other symptoms of celiac disease, this may not raise any alarm bells. A person with undiagnosed celiacs may assume they are more flatulent than others and not investigate their symptoms further.
Acid Reflux and Heartburn
Though this is not a classic symptom of celiac disease, many patients with the disease do experience acid reflux and heartburn. It feels like a burning sensation rising in the chest due to acid from the stomach moving up past the lower esophageal sphincter. Patients tend to experience much relief from acid reflux once they eliminate gluten from their diet.
Though the most distinctive sign of celiac disease is loose bowel movements, about 15 percent of people experience constipation when the undigested, unabsorbed food forms stool in the lower end of the small intestine, and the body is only able to absorb moisture from it. This dry, hard stool that may be difficult to pass. People with this symptom do not respond to laxatives, which is a telling sign of a larger problem.
A type of skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), though not a symptom of celiac disease per se, often occurs in persons with it and is triggered by gluten intolerance. This condition is characterized by blisters, usually on the knees, elbows, or buttocks and is often itchy. If a person develops a DH rash alongside other celiac disease symptoms, they should talk to their doctor.
Weakness and Fainting Spells
Celiac disease impairs the digestive process and leads to malabsorption of nutrients from food. Vital substances like iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12 cannot be absorbed, potentially causing anemia. People with celiac disease may feel weak, lack energy, and experience fainting spells. Anyone who eats a healthy, balanced diet but has anemia should talk to a doctor about testing for celiac disease.
Recent studies suggest a connection between celiac disease and peripheral neuropathy. This neurological condition causes pain, numbness, and tingling, most commonly in the feet. Doctors do not yet understand the exact relationship between the two, but more than ten percent of people with celiac disease have this symptom.
Some celiac patients, most often children, have dental defects such as damage to tooth enamel and tooth discoloration. Children and adults with celiac disease can also develop ulcers in the mouth. Unfortunately, the tooth damage may be irreversible. Adopting a gluten-free diet may help prevent further deterioration but can’t undo existing damage.
Those with celiac disease often have musculoskeletal problems like joint pain and aching bones. Though it is not clear exactly how having celiac disease affects the joints and bones, some suggest that malabsorption is the culprit. The nutrient deficiencies or autoimmune process experienced by people with celiac disease may impact joint and bone health, thereby generating other health conditions beyond the gastrointestinal.