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Celiac disease, also called sprue, is an immune reaction to eating gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
If you have celiac disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response in your small intestine. Over time, this reaction damages your small intestine's lining and prevents it from absorbing some nutrients (malabsorption). The intestinal damage often causes diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, bloating and anemia, and can lead to serious complications.
Your genes combined with eating foods with gluten and other factors can contribute to celiac disease, but the precise cause isn't known. When the body's immune system overreacts to gluten in food, the reaction damages the tiny, hair-like projections (villi) that line the small intestine. Villi absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from the food you eat. If your villi are damaged, you can't get enough nutrients, no matter how much you eat.
Celiac disease tends to be more common in people who have:
- A family member with celiac disease or dermatitis herpetiformis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Down syndrome or Turner syndrome
- Autoimmune thyroid disease
- Microscopic colitis (lymphocytic or collagenous colitis)
- Addison's disease
A strict, lifelong gluten-free diet is the only way to manage celiac disease.
Besides wheat, foods that contain gluten include:
- Graham flour
- Spelt (a form of wheat)
A dietitian who works with people with celiac disease can help you plan a healthy gluten-free diet. Even trace amounts of gluten in your diet can be damaging, even if they don't cause signs or symptoms.
Gluten can be hidden in foods, medications and nonfood products, including:
- Modified food starch, preservatives and food stabilizers
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications
- Vitamin and mineral supplements
- Herbal and nutritional supplements
- Lipstick products
- Toothpaste and mouthwash
- Communion wafers
- Envelope and stamp glue
- Play dough
Removing gluten from your diet will gradually reduce inflammation in your small intestine, causing you to feel better and eventually heal. Children tend to heal more quickly than adults.