3 things to know about celiac disease

Written by 
Monica May
intestinal damage of gluten

Gluten-free products seem to be popping up everywhere—from grocery store shelves to restaurant menus. Going gluten-free may seem like a fad—but for more than 3 million Americans with celiac disease these products are their only treatment option. 

This autoimmune disease is caused when the immune system—for unknown reasons—starts to identify gluten protein not as food but an intruder. The resulting immune response damages the walls of the small intestine. This causes symptoms such as gastrointestinal (GI) upset, fatigue and weight loss. 

However, more than half of adults with celiac disease have non-digestive symptoms, including depression, osteoporosis and arthritis. A whopping 80 percent of Americans with celiac disease are not diagnosed. 

In honor of celiac awareness day, we spoke with Scott Peterson, Ph.D., professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), who studies links between the microbiome and chronic inflammation. He’s also familiar with the struggles people with the condition face each day: His wife was diagnosed with celiac disease about ten years ago. 

Here are three things he told us we should know about celiac disease: 

  • It could unlock secrets to other autoimmune disorders. Unlike many autoimmune disorders, scientists know the cause of celiac disease—gluten protein. This provides a unique opportunity to understand what triggers celiac disease, which could help us better understand more autoimmune disorders. 
  • Signs point to the microbiome. Nearly 70 percent of our immune cells are in our gut. Our immune system is constantly surveilling our gut microbiome—it’s like the best friend you don’t quite trust. And indeed, scientists are finding the gut microbiome of people with celiac differs from people without the disease, and changes after they start a gluten-free diet. This could explain the brain-related symptoms: Nerve cells line the GI tract, connecting our gut and brain. 
  • Truly gluten-free diets are hard to achieve. Removing gluten sounds simple—but this protein shows up in surprising places. Play-dough, lip balm and even medicine can contain gluten. For this reason, nearly 30 percent of people with celiac disease who go gluten-free still experience symptoms. In addition to improving their quality of life, a drug could help them avoid long-term effects of untreated celiac disease, including cancer and bone loss.

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