What is Celiac Disease?

A Look at Celiac Disease

An image of celiac disease cells
Michael J. Klein, M.D./Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images


Gluten intolerance, Celiac sprue, Gluten-sensitive

Medical Specialties:

Allergy/immunology, Gastroenterology, Internal Medicine, Family medicine

Clinical Definition:

Celiac disease is a digestive, autoimmune disorder characterized by intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat products and other foods. When gluten is ingested, the immune system forms antibodies that bind to parts of the villi of the small intestine, resulting in inflammation, damage to the intestine and malnutrition.

In Our Own Words:

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten proteins, which are found in all wheat products, including wheat, rye and barley, and in many other foods that use wheat in the manufacturing process. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the body’s immune system overacts, attacking not only the proteins but also the small intestine itself, especially the small, hair-like villi, which is where nutrients are absorbed. This assault reduces the small bowel’s ability to absorb vital nutrients from food.

Celiac disease affects an estimated 1 in 133 people and can be fatal if the nutrient deficiency becomes too severe. There is no cure for celiac disease, but the symptoms can be effectively managed by following a gluten-free diet.

More Information About Celiac Disease

Celiac disease has a hereditary component and can be inherited.

Although not always present, the mucosa or lining of the small intestine exhibits characteristic lesions or damage in those with gluten intolerance.

Although rare among Asians and Africans, celiac disease affects about 1 percent of all Caucasians. Celiac disease can present in people of any age, from babies who have just had gluten-containing cereal added to their milk all the way through adulthood.

The number of people with celiac disease is increasing, and this condition is most prevalent among people with other autoimmune diseases, including Sjorgen syndrome, type 1 diabetes and thyroid disease.

A minority of people with celiac disease exhibit symptoms of malabsorption whereas most people with disease exhibit no or limited symptoms. In fact, most people with celiac disease are never diagnosed.

Gluten products contain a lot of proline, a type of protein. Because there's so much proline in gluten, gluten is hard to digest, and proline or protein fragments accumulate and damage the mucosa of the intestine. These peptide fragments trip the immune system and cause T-lymphocytes to release inflammatory mediators. These inflammatory mediators cause inflammation that damages the mucosa of the intestine.

Celiac disease can present with a variety of signs, symptoms and complications, including the following:

  • diarrhea
  • weight loss
  • flatus (gas)
  • abdominal discomfort
  • nutrient deficiencies (for example, folate, calcium and iron)

Of note, people with mild or asymptomatic celiac disease may exhibit no problems other than nutrient deficiency.

People with celiac disease should avoid gluten. Many people with celiac disease can tolerate oats; however, these oats should come from plants that don't contaminate oat product production with production of wheat and gluten-containing grains.

Furthermore, people with celiac disease should be treated for nutrient deficiencies, including deficiencies of folate, iron and calcium.


Cleveland Clinic. “Celiac Disease” reviewed March 5, 2013. Accessed July 2013.

Celiac Disease Foundation. “Celiac Disease.” Accessed July 2013.

Center for Celiac Research & Treatment. “Celiac Disease FAQ” 2012. Accessed July 2013.

The Merck Manual. “Celiac Disease” reviewed Aug. 2012. Accessed July 2013.

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