What is coeliac disease?

ceoliac disease

It seems like gluten is in everything these days, but we’ve all met someone who can’t eat it. The most well-known form of gluten sensitivity is coeliac disease – a condition that causes a person’s immune system to respond aggressively to gluten. When this happens, the immune system creates a chemical reaction which can damage or even destroy the ‘villi’ in your small intestine. These villi are very important for nutrient absorption, and if they are damaged, it can lead to malnutrition and severe pain among other things.

In recent years, ‘non-coeliacs’ have also reported uncomfortable conditions from eating gluten. Very little is known about this condition, though some suspect it to be more similar to a form irritable bowel syndrome than coeliac disease.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a combination of proteins gliadin and glutelin, and is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. Gluten is what gives baked wheat products their chewiness and elasticity. It has earned itself a bad reputation in recent years, however many experts claim gluten is harmless to the ordinary person.

History of coeliac disease

Humans have been eating gluten products such as bread for centuries with symptoms of coeliac disease and gluten intolerance usually dismissed as a ‘bad stomach’. Coeliac disease only became understood in the 20th century, though some sources suggest the symptoms of coeliac disease were first identified as far back as 2nd century Greece where the word coeliac is said to have derived from the Greek word ‘koiliakos’, meaning suffering in the bowels.

There is some research today to suggest coeliac disease and gluten intolerance is becoming increasingly common. Some attribute this trend to the increased presence of gluten in processed foods, while others contend it’s simply due to it being easier to identify coeliacs with modern technology.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance and coeliac disease

The symptoms of these two conditions are listed below. They share similar symptoms, though coeliac disease is generally more severe. These lists don’t replace a doctor though, so if suspect you might be suffering from either of these conditions, visit your doctor.

Coeliac disease Gluten intolerance:


  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Easy bruising
  • Bone pain
  • Poor concentration & behavioural anomalies
  • Foggy mind
  • Depression
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Headaches
  • Bone pain
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration

Who gets coeliac disease?

We are still learning about coeliac disease, though it is widely believed a person must have genetic predisposition to develop the condition. Coeliac Australia says the genes associated with coeliac disease are DQ2 and HLA DQ8, which is present in 30% of the Australian population. Despite this, only 1 in 7 Australians actually ever develop the condition. Coeliac disease can develop at any stage of life in both males and females. It’s estimated that 80% of Australian coeliacs are unaware they have the condition, so you should consult your doctor if you suspect you have this disease. Even less is known about non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, though it is once again suspected to be a gene condition. Coeliac Australia is unsure how many people are affected by gluten sensitivity as it is more difficult to diagnose.

Is there a cure?

Unfortunately there is no cure for coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten insensitivity. The only option is to go through life on a strict gluten free diet. Without gluten, damage done to the lining of the bowels will repair over time, and the symptoms will disappear.

Gluten free foods

Though gluten is ordinarily only found in wheat, rye, barley and some oats, it is also introduced into a lot of processed foods, so be sure to always read the labelling. Things such as fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and nuts are gluten free, meaning there is still a lot to choose from on a gluten-free diet. There are also a number of processed products which deliberately have no gluten in them. Keep an eye out for any ‘gluten free’ labels and the Coeliac Australia Endorsement logo.

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