Celiac Disease: Symptoms, Related Conditions, & Long-term Risks
Celiac disease is a serious, genetic autoimmune disease.
When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten (wheat, barley, rye), it causes their immune system to attack and damage the villi that line their small intestine.
Since celiac disease causes damage to the small intestine, many people mistakenly assume this is simply a digestive issue.
Celiac disease is far more than a GI problem.
There are over 300 known signs and symptoms of celiac disease.
The most well-known and commonly associated celiac symptoms affect the GI tract. However, those are far from a complete picture of the impacts from this autoimmune condition.
The malnutrition and systemic inflammation caused by celiac disease harms the entire body.
Every organ and body system are affected by untreated celiac disease. Continued gluten damage may lead to serious short- and long-term health problems.
Let’s review the different areas of the body that may be affected.
Chronic diarrhea, failure to thrive, bloating, pain, fatigue, and irritability are considered classic celiac symptoms. Babies, toddlers, and young children are most likely to have these classic GI signs of celiac disease.
Older children, teenagers, and adults tend to have symptoms affecting other areas of the body. These may be in addition to GI symptoms or without GI symptoms.
Recent research has shown that only a third of adult patients diagnosed with celiac disease have chronic diarrhea. The most common sign of celiac disease in adults is iron deficiency anemia. When it is caused by celiac disease, anemia does not respond to iron therapy.
Most doctors check for classic celiac symptoms only before recommending celiac disease testing. There is a misconception that if a patient does not have diarrhea and weight loss symptoms, then they cannot have celiac disease. Because of this outdated approach, many people with celiac disease remain undiagnosed.
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating or gas
- Lactose intolerance
- Pale, foul-smelling stool
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Lymphoma or intestinal cancer
- Unexplained liver problem
Skin, Hair, or Dental
Up to 25% of celiacs develop an itchy skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis (DH). This chronic skin condition is sometimes called Duhring’s disease. DH is thought to be a skin manifestation of celiac disease.
Anyone diagnosed with DH should be tested for celiac disease. A gluten free diet has been shown to improve symptoms of DH, even in those that receive a negative celiac test result.
Beside DH, celiac disease also increases the risk of developing other skin problems. A 2005 study found that 5% of children with chronic urticaria (aka hives) also had celiac disease. Their hives resolved within five to 10 weeks after a gluten free diet was started.
For many celiacs, especially kids, canker sores and dental problems are their most obvious sign of celiac disease. Dental health professionals play an important role in celiac screening. More awareness about celiac disease is needed in this field.
Skin, Hair, or Dental Symptoms:
- Itchy skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
- Hives (chronic urticaria)
- Hair loss from head or body (alopecia)
- Discolored teeth or enamel loss
- Recurrent mouth canker sores / oral ulcers (aphthous stomatitis)
- Frequent dental cavities (despite good oral hygiene)
Sadly, for many women recurrent miscarriage or stillbirth is their first sign of celiac disease. These heartbreaking losses may be prevented for some families by more frequent celiac testing.
Celiac testing should occur prior to conception and following either a miscarriage or stillbirth. Following a diagnosis, patients then need adequate education to successfully transition to a gluten free diet.
Likewise, unexplained infertility and other fertility problems in both men and women may be the result of undiagnosed celiac disease. The adoption of a gluten free diet after diagnosis has be shown to improve symptoms.
Celiac disease should not be the factor that dictates your ability to start or grow your family. If you are experiencing any reproductive symptoms, then consider requesting celiac testing from your doctor.
- Delayed puberty
- Menstrual irregularities
- Infertility (particularly unexplained)
- Miscarriage (more likely to be recurrent) or stillbirth
- Early menopause
Behavioral, Psychological, or Neurological
My youngest sister was diagnosed with celiac disease at 19 years old. She had spent at least the previous 10 years sick and suffering.
Since her symptoms primarily manifested as anxiety and panic attacks, she was wrongly (and offensively) diagnosed as “a hormonal teenager with anxiety.” In reality, her body was panicked because she was eating foods that were actively causing it harm.
Gaining a celiac diagnosis was the critical first step on her path toward healing and good health. Unfortunately, her experience is not unique.
An estimated 10% of people with celiac disease, possibly more, suffer neurological symptoms. Research shows higher-than-average rates of depression and anxiety in people with celiac disease. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity also raises the risks of these conditions.
Furthermore, up to one-third of people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity have migraines. The prevalence of headaches is also greatly increased by untreated celiac disease.
Switching to a gluten free diet may alleviate these symptoms and the need pharmaceutical relief.
Even symptoms from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may be improved by switching to a gluten free diet. More research is needed on the possible link between these conditions.
If you have been diagnosed with or suspect you may be suffering from a mental health disorder, seek out treatment from a licensed mental health provider. A gluten free diet is not a replacement for emotional, mental, or psychological treatment.
Behavioral, Psychological, or Neurological Symptoms:
- Brain fog / foggy mind
- Headache or migraine
- Anxiety or pain attacks
- Irritability / mood swings / anger issues
- Ataxia (lack of muscle coordination)
- Developmental delay
- Sleep disturbances or nightmares, especially in children
Researchers at the University of Frederica II of Naples studied the relationship between different kinds of arthritis pain and celiac disease. They found that celiac patients are FOUR TIMES more likely to have early signs of arthritis in their lower limbs than the general public!
A celiac diagnosis and gluten free diet may be the key to eliminating or greatly reducing many people’s struggle with chronic pain.
Muscular Skeletal Symptoms:
- Bone or joint pain
- Numbness or pain in hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy)
- Fibromyalgia or muscle pain
- Short stature
- Osteopenia or osteoporosis
There are also signs that don’t necessarily fit into one category. Like many of the other ones, these are primarily a result of malnourishment. When our intestinal villi can’t capture the nutrients we eat or medications we take, problems are going to happen.
- Nutrient deficiencies, especially iron, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, B6, B12, or folate
- Unexplained anemia
- IgA deficiency
- Fatigue or chronic fatigue syndrome
- Failure to thrive or malnutrition
- Requiring higher than normal or ever-increasing medication dosage to treat an illness or disease
As you can see, celiac disease causes numerous health problems.
Even for those following a gluten free diet, accidental ingestion of gluten may cause any of their celiac symptoms to flare up. #nocrumbplease
Celiac disease is linked to many other health problems.
Certain health conditions increase your risk for developing celiac disease. This is particularly true for other autoimmune diseases.
For example, if you have an autoimmune arthritis condition – rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) – then you have a higher risk of also developing celiac disease.
Conversely, if you have celiac disease and it is left untreated, then you may be more likely to develop other related health problems.
Related Conditions or Autoimmune Disorders:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Graves’ disease)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD- Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA)
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Primary biliary cirrhosis
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy
- IgA nephropathy (Berger’s disease)
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Down syndrome
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis
- Turner syndrome
- Williams syndrome
- Addison’s disease
- Sjogren’s disease
Do you have any of the symptoms or known related conditions? If so, it may be wise to seek out celiac disease testing from your doctor.
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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. This blog post is general information only and is not to be substituted for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.