Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people because the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. So affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are but at risk for long-term health complications.
When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, damage to the small intestine results. It is believed that the body responds to gluten as if it was an antigen, and launches an immune system attack when it is absorbed by the intestine. This, in turn, causes the lining of the small intestine to swell. As a result, tiny hairlike projections called villi suffer damage and destruction, which impairs the body’s ability to absorb vital nutrients. Malabsorption becomes a serious problem, and the loss of vitamins, minerals, and calories results in malnutrition despite an adequate diet. Diarrhea compounds the problem. Because celiac disease impairs digestion, food allergies may also appear.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley). Their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. Nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body, when the villi are damage.
Celiac disorder is hereditary, meaning that it runs in families. People with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child, sibling) have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disorder.
See also: “Celiac Symptoms and Diagnosis“
Long Term Health Effects
Celiac disease can develop at any age after people start eating foods or medicines that contain gluten. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems. These include the development of other autoimmune disorders like Type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS), dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, neurological conditions like epilepsy and migraines, short stature, and intestinal cancers.