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Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity

Let's look at what causes Celiac Disease and exactly what happens inside the body of someone with untreated Celiac Disease.

Celiac Disease is often referred to as an “allergy,” but it is actually an autoimmune disease. When someone with Celiac eats gluten – whether in the form of wheat, rye, or barley – it causes the body to attack itself. The villi (those fingerlike projections in the small intestines that absorb nutrients from the food you eat) get flattened. And when this happens, they can’t properly absorb the nutrients your body needs to grow and promote optimum health. Again, malabsorption is the best case scenario. You can understand that, over time, an almost unlimited range of health problems can ensue.

The disease takes a toll on different people in different ways, resulting in chronic gastrointestinal issues in some…migraines and neurological problems in others…and unexplained anemia and fatigue in still more. Others fare much better, essentially showing no apparent health effects. But these “asymptomatic” Celiacs, in many cases, can be at greatest risk, since they have no outward signs alerting them to the great damage that’s occurring inside their bodies.

It’s important to note that Celiac Disease can develop at any time in one’s life, at a very young age or into the senior years. And unlike an allergy, there is no chance of “outgrowing” it. Experts agree that several things must occur for Celiac Disease to develop:

  1. You must have one or both of two GENES for Celiac Disease known as HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8. It’s estimated that a full one-third of the population carries one of these genes for Celiac
  2. You must be eating GLUTEN. Even with the gene for Celiac, if you were living in an area of the world that never ate gluten – or living the lifestyle of a paleolithic hunter/gatherer not eating any grains  -- you wouldn’t develop Celiac.
  3. There needs to be a “trigger,” for lack of a better word.  Experts theorize that some sort of physical or emotional stressor needs to be present to set Celiac in motion. (This is why it can happen at any time throughout one’s life, but that doesn’t mean that any physical or emotional stressor will definitely trigger Celiac.) Triggers can be things like a major illness, a virus or gastrointestinal bug, a divorce, loss of a loved one, major surgery, or even pregnancy. 
  4. Recently, a protein called zonulin, which causes a “leaky gut,” has been identified at elevated levels in the bodies of people with Celiac.1This could be how the offending gluten proteins get into the bloodstream and cause the autoimmune reaction. This recent discovery is exciting in that the research has implications for figuring out other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, insulin dependent diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.   

Remember, of course, that even though about 40% of the population has a gene for Celiac, only about 1% of the population goes on to develop the disease.  But knowing some of the signs to look for makes you better equipped to deal with the issue should it arise in you or a loved one.

As recent research has shown, even if you don’t have Celiac Disease, you may have a condition called gluten sensitivity.  People with gluten sensitivity have many of the same symptoms as those with undiagnosed Celiac Disease, but they don’t show either the presence of gluten antibodies or the physical damage to the small intestine.

So with multiple conditions potentially causing the same symptoms, it’s essential to get tested – and get the RIGHT tests – to distinguish which, if either, condition is present: Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity.