Three factors are required in order to contract the disease. First, a person must have a genetic disposition for it. Second, the person must consume gluten, and third, the disease has to be triggered. Common triggers include a viral infection, pregnancy, surgery or a trauma.
The disease is characterized by damage to the villi of the small intestine upon consumption of gluten. Villi are small, fingerlike projections lining the small intestine. It is their job to reach out and grab the nutrients in passing food. When a celiac ingests gluten, these fingers are damaged, often shrinking, flattening or disappearing, and nutrients pass through unabsorbed. This can lead to forms of malnutrition in well-fed individuals who may experience weight loss, loose stools and a distended stomach from bloating.
The good news is that the damage to the villi is not permanent and improvement in health usually begins immediately after adopting a gluten-free diet. No medication is required, but the diet does require a serious lifelong commitment. Specifically, gluten is found in all forms of wheat, including spelt, farina, semolina, triticale and kamut, as well as barley, rye and possibly oats. Gluten also is used as a thickener in a host of food products and some medications. It even is used in the glue on the back of lickable stamps, in some toothpastes and as a powdery coating on some chewing gum.
Symptoms for the disease vary greatly in type and intensity, and some people have no symptoms, making this disease difficult to recognize and leading to chameleonlike references. Extreme fatigue, often due to iron-deficient anemia, is one of the most universal symptoms. The word celiac comes from the Greek word "koila" meaning belly, which is where the most common symptoms originate. Abdominal cramping, severe gas, bloating, oily stools, weight loss or weight gain, and joint pain are just a few of the potential signs that gluten is wreaking havoc with your small intestine.
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