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Celiac disease is an inherited intestinal disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with nutrient absorption. People with this disease cannot tolerate a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley. For these people, eating gluten may cause a wide range of symptoms in the digestive system or in other parts of the body, such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, irritability, and depression. The disease is treated by eliminating all gluten from the diet.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. People who have celiac disease cannot tolerate a protein called gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley.

Understanding Gluten

Gluten is found mainly in foods, but it is also in products we use every day, such as stamp and envelope adhesive, medicines, and vitamins.
When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the small intestine. The tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine are damaged or destroyed. The protrusions, called villi, normally allow nutrients from food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Without healthy villi, a person becomes malnourished, regardless of the quantity of food eaten.

What Causes Celiac Disease?

Researchers are still trying to figure out the exact cause or causes of celiac disease. At this point, they believe that celiac disease is a type of autoimmune disease and that certain genes and environmental factors play a role in a person developing the disease.
Celiac disease is a genetic disease, meaning it runs in families. Sometimes the disease is triggered -- or becomes active for the first time -- after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection, or severe emotional stress.
(Click Causes of Celiac Disease for more information.)
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Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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