Although coeliac disease dates back to the beginnings of agriculture, and therefore of civilization, in recent years there has been a striking increase in awareness of this disease, to the point that many professionals have warned of the risk of overdiagnosis associated with the low reliability of the tests.

In this article we will describe the main symptoms and signs of coeliac disease , which affect both the gastrointestinal system and other functions of the body. We will also discuss the causes of this disease and the ways in which it can be managed, despite the fact that there is no treatment to resolve the alterations that underlie the symptoms.

What is celiac disease?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder characterized by inflammation of the mucosa and shortening of the villi of the small intestine in response to consumption of gluten, a protein bundle found in cereals such as wheat, oats, barley, and rye.

It is a relatively unknown disorder in the general population; however, it is believed to affect to some degree 1 in 100 to 200 people. In this regard, it is important to note that the number of diagnoses is influenced by the strict criteria used and by awareness of the disease.

Celiac disease can also be difficult to diagnose due to the fact that in many cases there are no or only mild symptoms: many people with celiac disease report only mild gastrointestinal complaints. It is believed that only about 20% of all cases of this disease are diagnosed, and that affects women and Caucasians to a greater extent .

Main coeliac symptoms

The autoimmune reactions characteristic of celiac disease interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients and can damage the mucous membrane lining the intestine if the affected person consumes gluten on a regular basis. These problems are manifested in symptoms and signs such as feeling of fatigue, anemia, diarrhea, weight loss and gas bloating .

In adults, signs not associated with the digestive system are common, including headaches, mouth sores, rashes and itchy skin, pain in the joints and decreased bone density (osteoporosis), and iron deficiency anemia. Injuries to the nervous system can also occur .

In contrast, when the affected person is less than 2 years old, the most significant signs are chronic vomiting and diarrhea, decreased interest in food, swelling of the belly, and atrophy of the muscles. In somewhat older children, diarrhoea, constipation, neurological symptoms, headaches or lack of coordination are characteristic.

In addition to the symptoms we have described, when coeliac disease occurs in girls and young children digestive disorders can cause delays and deficits in physical development that sometimes leave long-term sequelae. These complications are related to vomiting, diarrhoea, lack of appetite and problems in absorbing nutrients.

Causes of this disease

Injuries to the villi that cover and protect the small intestine, as well as inflammation of this segment of the digestive system, alter its ability to absorb certain types of nutrients essential to the proper functioning of the body. In particular interfere with the uptake of vitamins and minerals .

While the specific cause of celiac disease is unknown, it is known to result from a combination of genetic and other environmental factors. Thus, some people are biologically predisposed to react negatively when consuming gluten, and by doing so on a more or less regular basis they may suffer intestinal lesions.

Since celiac disease has a significant genetic component , it is not surprising that the likelihood of developing this disease is higher in people with close relatives who are affected. The same is true for other risk factors influenced by heredity, such as type 1 diabetes mellitus and diseases affecting the thyroid.

On the other hand, various alterations affecting the gastrointestinal system may favour the appearance of signs of coeliac disease. Thus, the disease often begins to manifest itself as a consequence of viral infections in the intestines, pregnancy and childbirth, invasive surgery and periods of very intense stress.

Treatment and handling

At present, there is no known treatment capable of correcting the underlying disorders of coeliac disease. This is why the intervention in these cases is usually aimed at preventing or minimizing the symptoms, and consists mainly of behavioral aspects and changing eating habits.

Therefore, coeliac disease is managed by avoiding gluten-containing foods and drinks. Some of the most common are bread, pastries, Italian pasta, beer and chocolate . People with coeliac disease are advised to make sure that they buy gluten-free foods; this is especially relevant in the case of manufactured products.

People with coeliac disease can benefit greatly from a gluten-free diet . This not only prevents the onset of symptoms and reduces the severity of those that are already present, but also helps the self-repairing processes of the gastrointestinal system to take place properly, alleviating the disease in the long term.