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Conditions InDepth: Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is disease that affects the digestive tract. People with celiac disease have a reactions to foods that contain gluten. The reactions cause intestinal damage, making it hard for the body to get proper nutrition.

The Digestive Tract
Diagram of total or simple mastectomy

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The small intestine is a long, narrow tube that connects the stomach with colon. In most adults, the small intestine ranges from 9-15 feet in length. The main function of the small intestine is to absorb nutrients from food as it passes through. This is done through tiny, finger-like projections called villi, which line the inside of the intestinal wall.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. The body's immune system attacks healthy tissue. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, the abnormal immune response causes the villi to shorten and flatten. This reaction blocks the small intestine from absorbing nutrients, vitamins, and mineral from foods.

It is not known exactly why the immune system is triggered by gluten, but there is a gene that is common in people who have it. Although it runs in families, not everyone who has the gene will have problems. The only way to treat celiac disease is to completely avoid foods that contain gluten.

If left untreated, celiac disease leads to other conditions that affect the entire body. Common complications include:


Celiac disease. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114570/Celiac-disease. Updated January 10, 2018. Accessed February 9, 2018.

Celiac disease. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/malabsorption-syndromes/celiac-disease. Updated May 2016. Accessed February 9, 2018.

Definition & facts for celiac disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease/definition-facts. Updated June 2016. Accessed February 9, 2018.

Non-celiac wheat sensitivity. Celiac Disease Foundation website. Available at: https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/understanding-celiac-disease-2/non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity-2. Accessed February 9, 2018.

What is celiac disease? Celiac Disease Foundation website. Available at: https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/understanding-celiac-disease-2/what-is-celiac-disease. Accessed February 9, 2018.

Last reviewed December 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daus Mahnke, MD  Last Updated: 2/9/2018