Understanding Coeliac Disease

Posted on: 23 August 2017


Coeliac disease is a serious condition that causes your immune system to overreact when you consume gluten, which is a protein found in several grains. Your immune system triggers an attack on this usually harmless substance, and as a result, your small intestine becomes inflamed, which can prevent vital nutrients being absorbed. The precise reason some people develop coeliac disease is unknown, but you can develop it at any time in your life, and a combination of genetic and environmental factors are thought to be responsible for triggering your immune system to attack gluten. Here's what you need to know about coeliac disease:


Initial symptoms of coeliac disease include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloating, vomiting and weight loss, with symptoms being most severe shortly after eating grains containing gluten, such as wheat, rye or barley. Those who have had undiagnosed coeliac disease for some time can experience loss of bone density, fatigue and anaemia as a result of nutritional deficiencies. Chronic dehydration as a result of gastric upset can also cause headaches, and you may experience acid reflux due to the functioning of your small intestine being compromised.

Diagnosis And Treatment Approach

Your doctor will diagnose coeliac disease by taking details of your symptoms, taking a blood sample and performing a small bowel tissue biopsy using an endoscope. Blood serology testing can confirm if certain antibody proteins that are known to react to gluten are elevated. This gives your doctor a good indication you have coeliac disease, but there are other inflammatory bowel conditions that impact on blood serology results, so an endoscopy is required to be certain there are no other underlying factors causing your symptoms.

An endoscope is a flexible, thin tube that has a tiny camera on the end of it, and it's inserted into your digestive tract through your mouth. Once the endoscope reaches your small intestine, your doctor will be able to determine the degree of inflammation and damage to your gut lining before inserting a small surgical tool through the endoscope to take a biopsy. The biopsy will be analysed to determine if the villi are damaged. Villi are small hair-like growths that project from the walls of the small intestine and absorb nutrients from your food. When a person has coeliac disease, the villi appear flattened as a result of damage caused by repeated exposure to gluten.

There's no cure for coeliac disease, but the condition can be managed by making changes to your diet. Removing all sources of gluten from your diet will allow your small intestine to heal and your villi will recover over a period of several months. During recovery, you may be prescribed a range of supplements to address nutritional deficiencies that have occurred due to malabsorption, and you can be referred to a dietician for advice and support as you transition to a gluten-free diet.

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms associated with coeliac disease, ask your GP to refer you to a gastroenterologist for testing.