After reading my posts, a couple of people have asked me what Celiac Disease actually is, thinking that it means I cannot eat wheat.

To begin, Celiacs cannot eat gluten, which is a protein contained in wheat, barley, and rye. Most Celiacs say that gluten is also found in oats, though this is controversial because oats, by nature, do not contain gluten. However, the agricultural method in which oats are grown causes gluten to be present. With practices such as crop rotation with wheat on large, sprawling fields, harvesting oats can then result in contamination. This being said, Celiacs should never eat oats unless they are certified gluten free. These specialty oats can be hard to find and more expensive, but check out your local natural foods market — you just might be able to enjoy that bowl of delicious oatmeal that you have been missing each morning.

When a Celiac eats gluten, the resulting reaction is not unlike food poisoning: cramping, abdominal pain, headaches, body pain, chills, severe diarrhea, nausea, confusion, and fatigue. Depending on the amount of gluten consumed and each individual’s reaction, these symptoms can last a few hours or a few days. Once, I was sick for three days from a ?our tortilla!

Yet, the most extreme part of Celiac Disease is something that most people do not think about.

What defines this autoimmune disease is when gluten damages the villi (long finger like protrusions to increase surface area) within the small intestine. In very simple terms, your small intestine has a very large surface area because the larger the area, the greater the chance that items passing through will touch tissue and thus be absorbed. A large surface area is very efficient and allows the body to take in all/most of the nutrients you eat. When gluten passes through the small intestine, it begins to be absorbed through the villi, but a Celiac’s immune system says “Hey! This isn’t food! This is dangerous!” and beings to attack the protein as though it were bacteria. This does not just harm the gluten, but it destroys the villi. When the villi are attacked, they blunt, or shrink. I like to imagine little space invader ships coming along and zapping my villi with a “pew! pew!” sound, and poof! my villi are no more. If all the villi are blunted, your small intestine’s absorption of nutrients is cut down so much that you can no longer absorb all food correctly.

Restoring the villi to full, fat, fingery health takes up to three months, which is why newly-diagnosed Celiacs will not notice immediate health benefits after stating a gluten free diet.

So now you know! Celiac Disease has its ups and downs, but for the most part, symptoms can be managed or mostly avoided with a little extra research and preparation — and obsessively reading food labels at the grocery store.

With a positive attitude and a lot of knowledge, a Celiac’s life can be exactly the same as everyone else’s … but for the aforementioned reasons, you’ll never hear a Celiac say “It’s my birthday, I’ll treat myself to a piece of cake.”