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People with untreated celiac disease are at serious risk for complications throughout the body. When you’re not getting essential vitamins and minerals, your body can’t function or develop properly. (12)
“Anything you eat you’re not able to absorb, so you’re essentially malnourished,” says Dr. Reddy.
Children are especially at risk because their bodies are still growing. They may experience: (2)
- Delayed puberty
- Trouble gaining weight
- Poor muscle and bone growth due to lack of calcium and vitamin D
- Problems with tooth enamel from adult teeth not properly developing
- Learning disabilities
Often, a delay in treatment happens because a person doesn’t know they have celiac. They may struggle with lots of different unexplained health issues before getting the right diagnosis.
Nutrient deficiencies from celiac can cause: (2,14,15)
- Anemia Reddy says one of the first things medical professionals see in celiac patients is anemia, which happens when the body isn’t absorbing enough iron. Iron helps the body make the new red blood cells it needs to circulate oxygen.
- Osteoporosis When the body doesn’t have enough calcium and vitamin D to replenish bone mass, bones become very fragile. People with osteoporosis are at risk of breaking bones very easily.
- Lactose Intolerance The damage to your small intestine caused by celiac can also make you lactose intolerant. You might have stomach pain or diarrhea after eating dairy products, even if they don’t have gluten. Once the small intestine recovers, most people can tolerate dairy again.
- Missed Menstrual Periods and Fertility Problems, Including Miscarriages Researchers aren’t sure what the link is between fertility issues and celiac, but it likely has something to do with the body’s inability to absorb important nutrients needed for fetal development.
- Nervous System Issues These are also a likely result of malnutrition and include tingling in the hands and feet (neuropathy), seizures, and anxiety and depression.
- Pancreatic Insufficiency When the pancreas can’t make enough enzymes to digest food correctly, it’s called pancreatic insufficiency. About 5 percent of people with celiac also have this condition, although researchers aren’t sure exactly why they exist together.
- Gallbladder Issues The gallbladder helps during digestion by releasing bile to break down fats. When the small intestines are damaged, they can send incorrect signals to the gallbladder, making it release more bile than necessary. Signs of gallbladder issues include indigestion and abdominal pain.
- Liver Disease If the liver doesn’t get the correct balance of nutrients, it can become damaged over time. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition where the liver is storing too much fat, which interferes with its ability to store nutrients. Research shows people with celiac disease are more likely to get nonalcoholic fatty liver disease than those without celiac. (16)
Read more 7 Things That Happen When You Stop Eating Meat
What to Know About Dermatitis Herpetiformis and Celiac Disease
About 10 percent of people who have celiac disease develop a rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. (14) The rash can look similar to herpes or shingles, forming itchy blisters on the knees, elbows, scalp, back, or butt. It usually appears for the first time between ages 30 and 40, but some people get it earlier. A dermatologist can diagnose the rash and prescribe a cream or ointment to soothe it, but you’ll need to go gluten-free to really get rid of it.