Celiac Disease

This information is useful for adults and older adults
A woman examines a nutrition label, possibly for gluten.

A diagnosis of celiac disease is a classic good news, bad news scenario—good because most people are pleased to know there is a cause for the digestive discomfort they have been experiencing, but bad because inconvenient dietary limitations are, at present, the only way to treat the disease. 

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder triggered by a reaction to foods that contain gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains). When people with celiac disease eat foods that have gluten, the small intestine becomes inflamed, making it difficult for the body to absorb key nutrients. Symptoms of celiac disease vary widely but may include weakness, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. Some people, however, have no digestive symptoms at all.

It’s estimated that 1 percent of adults in the U.S. have celiac disease. At present, the only “treatment” is to follow a strict gluten-free diet. This allows your intestines to heal, stopping further damage from occurring. It also reduces uncomfortable symptoms and allows the body to take in the nutrients it needs.

In rare cases, undiagnosed and untreated celiac disease can lead to lymphoma of the small intestine and other serious medical problems. Therefore, proper diagnosis is critical.

“Celiac disease is often a missed diagnosis, since symptoms can be nonspecific. At Yale Medicine Digestive Diseases, we have experts who will perform the appropriate diagnostic tests,” says Badr Al Bawardy, MD, gastroenterologist and inflammatory bowel disease specialist. “After diagnosis, we work closely with our dieticians to help our patients follow a gluten-free diet. The majority of patients notice an improvement in symptoms in a matter of weeks after instituting a gluten-free diet. We continue to monitor patients after diagnosis and treatment to make sure that the symptoms resolve and that the intestines heal.”