Gut-Churning Symptoms of Celiac Disease

Experts estimate that 3 million people in the United States suffer from celiac disease. Worst of all, though, is the fact that almost all of these people don’t even know they have this condition!

Gone are the days when you could race into a grocery store and grab a loaf of bread for yourself or your family without worry. It’s much more complicated these days now that we know that gluten may be making you and your family sick. And it’s not just in bread, but a whole host of available foods and beverages.

So, just what exactly is celiac disease and what does gluten have to do with it?

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein that comes from grains, such as wheat, rye, barley, and others. Gluten is makes bread chewy and dough elastic.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a type of autoimmune disorder. In other words, it’s a disease resulting from a malfunction of the immune system. With celiac, gluten is the trigger for this malfunction.

With gluten consumption, the body’s immune system goes into high gear. This overreaction damages the walls of the small intestine. More precisely, it damages the villi, which are the tiny, finger-like projections found along the lining of the small intestine.

Why is celiac disease dangerous?

The small intestine’s main job is nutrient absorption from the food you consume. In other words, the small intestine makes sure that you get the nutrients you need to fuel your body and live your life. The villi are an important part of this process.

Specifically, the villi create more surface area to catch and absorb these nutrients and move them to other parts of the body. When they are damaged, the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients decreases, leading to malabsorption.

What are the consequences of malabsorption?

Malabsorption is no joke. It can result in:

  • Malnutrition
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Delayed healing
  • Fatigue
  • Weakened immune system
  • Failure to thrive (inhibited growth/development)

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

Celiac disease can occur at any age, and symptoms will vary. We’ll look at a combination of symptoms as identified by the Celiac Disease Foundation, the Gluten-Free Society, and the Mayo Clinic.

The first symptom? It’s a real pain in the behind…

1. Diarrhea

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is when you have increased bowel movements. Importantly, these stools will be loose and watery.

Why does celiac disease cause diarrhea?

Celiac disease damages the lining, or wall, of the small intestine. This damage then prevents nutrients from food being absorbed into the bloodstream. This process in turn leads to malabsorption.

One result of malabsorption? Watery or loose waste leaving the body, referred to as diarrhea.

The following symptom of celiac disease might just blow you away…

2. Bloating and Gas

What are bloating and gas?

Bloating is when your abdomen feels and looks swollen or distended. You may feel full even if you haven’t eaten recently.

Gas is air trapped in your digestive system. This increased gas, in turn, can cause bloating, or the feeling of being full even without eating.

Why does celiac disease cause bloating and gas?

Celiac disease means the small intestine is so damaged that it cannot fully digest carbohydrates. The undigested carbs eventually pass to the large intestine. The large intestine proceeds to breakdown these undigested carbohydrates, which in turn creates gas. This gas may lead to flatulence and/or bloating.

The next symptom of celiac disease is somewhat of the opposite problem, although it’s no less as annoying…

3. Constipation

What is constipation?

Constipation is a digestive tract condition which presents the following signs:

  • Less than three bowel movements per week
  • Dry, hard stools
  • Difficulty in passing stools, or pain when passing stools
  • Feeling as if not all stools have been expelled

Why does celiac disease cause constipation?

When celiac disease damages the small intestine’s lining, villi are unable to fully absorb all the nutrients from consumed food. As a result, the damaged villi absorb much of the excess moisture, which otherwise would have been absorbed into the passing waste.

Therefore, the waste that passes through is much drier and harder. Dry and hard stool? That is much more difficult to pass through and out of the body than regular stool.

The following sign of celiac disease isn’t one you can see, only feel. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be debilitating…

4. Fatigue

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is a sense of persistent tiredness accompanied by a lack of motivation. It is also commonly referred to as constant weariness, exhaustion, and malaise, resulting in decreasing capacities for mental or physical work.

How is fatigue different than normal tiredness?

It differs from common tired feelings in that it is not relieved by getting adequate rest and uninterrupted sleep.

Why does celiac disease cause fatigue?

Damaged villi mean the small intestine cannot absorb all necessary nutrients, including vitamins and mineral. Now, these nutrients are vital to creating and releasing energy in the body. Therefore, not receiving these nutrients means the body is effectively running on low energy, which we experience as fatigue.

The next sign of celiac disease is another common symptom that might come as a surprise to some…

5. Unintentional Weight Loss

A pair of jeans with a tape measure running through the belt loops.

What is unintentional weight loss?

Weight loss is a noticeable decrease in overall body weight or total body mass. This drop can be from loss of body fat, loss of fluids, or even loss of lean mass such as muscle, tendon, and bone mineral density.

Unintentional weight loss is weight loss achieved through no deliberate effort on your part.

Why does celiac disease cause unintentional weight loss?

Various nutrients from food serve various parts of your body, from muscle to bones, to storage of fat. Due to celiac disease’s damage to the villi of the small intestine, nutrients aren’t being absorbed. Therefore, nutrients can’t get to the various parts of the body where they are needed.

This process, in turn, can lead to muscle loss and bone loss (since the body needs nutrients to constantly build muscles and bones) as well as the loss of fat reserves. All of these situations can result in weight loss.

The following side effect of celiac disease will have you reaching for those iron supplements…

6. Iron-Deficiency Anemia

What is iron-deficiency anemia?

Anemia is a condition where the body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells, which are important for transporting oxygen. Iron-deficiency anemia is a subset of anemia. It is when anemia occurs specifically because the body lacks enough iron to properly function.

Why does celiac disease lead to this type of anemia?

With celiac disease’s impairment of absorption by the small intestine, not enough of the iron from eaten food can be absorbed into the body. This lower amount of iron in the body can lead to a decrease in the number of red blood cells, resulting in iron-deficiency anemia.

Even without celiac disease, the body is only designed to absorb a small amount of iron ingested from food. With celiac disease, the chances are even smaller that any iron can be absorbed in the small intestine.

What are the symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia?

Symptoms of this condition may include:

  • Fatigue or lack of energy that is unexplainable
  • Generalized weakness that is unexplainable
  • Chest pain or shortness of breath, particularly during activity
  • Headaches, particularly during activity
  • Dizziness
  • Paleness of skin, or sallow (yellow) skin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Whooshing feel or a pounding in the ears

The next symptom of celiac disease is absolutely devastating and requires professional attention…

7. Depression

Besides physiological symptoms, celiac disease can also produce psychological symptoms, including depression.

What is depression?

This condition is more than simply “feeling blue” once in awhile. Depression is defined as an extreme sadness coupled with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness that can last for weeks, months, or even years.

Why does celiac disease cause depression?

With the small intestine damage and the resulting lack of adequate absorption of nutrients, the brain can be affected. After all, it is deprived of essential nutrients like B vitamins, zinc, and tryptophan.

The role of these essential nutrients in the brain? To help the brain produce crucial chemicals, including serotonin. Notably, a deficiency in serotonin is strongly associated with depression and other mental illnesses.

What are the symptoms of depression?

Depression may be suspected if you experience five or more of the following for two weeks or longer.

  • Depressed moods
  • A lack of energy, or feeling tired the majority of your days
  • An overwhelming feeling of worthlessness, or guilt most days
  • Difficulty focusing, making decisions, and remembering details
  • Unable to sleep or sleeping too much
  • Disinterest in many activities during most days
  • Thoughts of suicide or death
  • Feeling a sense of lethargy
  • Weight gain or loss

Seek Help Now

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, you may call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This number is free to call and available 24/7.

The following sign of celiac disease isn’t nearly as serious as depression, although it can be incredibly irritating to deal with…

8. Itchy, Blistering Skin (Dermatitis Herpetiformis)

What is dermatitis herpetiformis?

Dermatitis herpetiformis is an itchy, blistery, patchy chronic (long-term) skin rash.

Where does the rash occur?

This rash can occur on several areas of your body, including:

  • Buttocks
  • Back
  • Shoulder blades
  • Scalp
  • Knees
  • Elbows

What does the rash feel like?

You may feel a stinging, burning sensation at first. This sensation is soon followed by patches of the small, red bumps that become extremely itchy.

What does the rash look like?

These bumps can take several forms, including:

  • Blisters
  • Fluid-filled sac-like sores
  • Raised sores
  • Many times, these patches of bumps may look like hives or even eczema.
  • The blisters may also look similar to herpes, but they do not come from the herpes virus. Instead, they are linked to gluten sensitivity.

Why does celiac disease cause these rashes?

There seems to be a debate as to whether celiac disease directly causes dermatitis herpetiformis or if both are separate reactions to gluten ingestion and intolerance. Since dermatitis herpetiformis is often found in conjunction with celiac disease, more research is required to determine why this is.

How do these rashes form?

When you eat gluten, your intestines respond by forming an antibody, called IgA, as a response. This IgA flows into your bloodstream, where it then builds up in the blood vessels under your skin. This accumulation is what triggers the dermatitis herpetiformis rash.

The upcoming symptom is one you can’t see, but definitely feel—at least some of the time…

9. Peripheral Neuropathy

What is peripheral neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy is a condition affecting the communication between the brain and spinal cord with the rest of the body. It is, in other words, a type of nerve damage.

What does peripheral neuropathy feel like?

These conditions may manifest as:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Weaknesses
  • Pain
  • Burning

These sensations largely occur in the hands and feet.

Why does celiac disease cause peripheral neuropathy

As is the case with dermatitis herpetiformis, there is a debate as whether peripheral neuropathy is a direct result of celiac disease or as a condition that merely coexists with celiac disease.

What’s the link between these two conditions?

One possibility lies in a deficiency of vitamins, particularly B12 and folate.

B12 is a crucial dietary nutrient, and any lack of it in the body can lead to peripheral neuropathy. One reason the body may lack this vitamin? Damaged villi being unable to absorb it.

What’s next?

What should someone who suspects they have this condition know?…

What Does Treatment for this Condition Look Like?

It should be evident by now that damage of any kind to the small intestine is no small matter. It can wreak havoc in the body in more ways than one. So, the best course of action is to identify if you have a gluten intolerance and then deal with said intolerance.

Is there a cure for this disease?

There is no absolute cure for celiac disease at this time. However, it can be controlled by managing your diet and avoiding food and beverages that contain gluten.

What popular foods and beverages contain gluten?

The following foods naturally contain lots of gluten:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Crackers
  • Cookies
  • Pies
  • Cakes
  • Dressings
  • Gravies
  • Sauces
  • Beer

This list is not complete, of course, but it can get you started.

You’ll have to be diligent in your search for gluten-free products.

Be aware that gluten may be hidden in not just food, but also in medications and non-food items such as mouthwash. It is also found in packaged foods, including cereals.

Practices to help you along the way include:

  • Reading packaging labels.
  • Keeping a food journal. Create a list of foods you can and cannot have, and take it with you when you go shopping or out to eat at a restaurant.

Fortunately, there are more gluten-free options available at stores and restaurants these days thanks to a new awareness of the dangers of gluten to those with an intolerance. With a little focus and awareness, you can manage your celiac disease, and, as a result, relieve most—if not all—of the related symptoms.

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