Celiac disease is a disease of the small intestine. The small intestine is a 22 foot long tube that begins at the stomach and ends at the large intestine (colon). The first 10 inches (25cm) feet of the small intestine (the part that is attached to the stomach) is called the duodenum, the middle part is called the jejunum, and the last part (the part that is attached to the colon) is called the ileum.
Food empties from the stomach into the small intestine where it is digested and absorbed into the body. While food is being digested and absorbed, it is transported by the small intestine to the colon. What enters the colon is primarily undigested food.
In celiac disease, there is an immunological (allergic) reaction within the inner lining of the small intestine to proteins (gluten) that are present in wheat, rye, barley and, to a lesser extent, in oats. The immunological reaction causes inflammation that destroys the lining of the small intestine.
This reduces the absorption of dietary nutrients and can lead to symptoms and signs of nutritional, vitamin, and mineral deficiencies. Other names for celiac disease include sprue, nontropical sprue, gluten enteropathy, and adult celiac disease. (Tropical sprue is another disease of the small intestine that occurs in tropical climates. Although tropical sprue may cause symptoms that are similar to celiac disease, the two diseases are not related.)
Celiac disease is common in European countries, particularly in Ireland, Italy, Sweden, and Austria. In Northern Ireland, for example, one in every 300 people has celiac disease. In Finland, the prevalence may be as high as one in every 100 persons.
Celiac disease also occurs in North America where the prevalence has been estimated at one in every 3000 people. Unfortunately, most population studies underestimate the prevalence of celiac disease because many individuals who develop celiac disease have few or no symptoms until later in life. In fact, a recent study in the United States suggests that the prevalence of celiac disease in the United States is similar to that in Europe.
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