Celiac disease, also called celiac sprue, is a digestive disorder that occurs when your immune system overreacts to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. This causes symptoms of abdominal pain and bloating after consuming gluten. Additionally, certain complications, including poor food absorption, may occur if the patient continues to eat gluten-containing foods.
When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the small intestine. Tiny fingerlike protrusions, called villi, which line the small intestine and enable the absorption of nutrients from food into the bloodstream, are destroyed. Without these villi, malnutrition occurs, regardless of how much food a person consumes.
It has not been determined what triggers this reaction in celiac patients. However, celiac disease is associated with autoimmune disorders such as lupus. Autoimmune disorders occur when the patient's immune system mistakenly identifies body cells as harmful invaders such as bacteria. As a result, the immune cells in celiac patients attack the patient's intestinal cells.
Researchers believe that many cases of celiac disease are inherited (passed down through families). It’s estimated that if someone in your immediate family (parent or sibling) has celiac disease, you will have a 5-15 percent chance of developing the disease as well.
"That family connection is very real," says family medicine doctor Joseph Habig, MD, with Lehigh Valley Health Network.” If a parent has celiac disease, children possibly will too. You also can be at higher risk if you or your relatives have other autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disease or psoriasis."
People can develop the disease at any age, but it is most commonly diagnosed in patients who are 8 to 12 months old or in patients ages 30-40. You can have the disease and not know it until it is triggered by severe stress, pregnancy, surgery, physical injury, infection or childbirth.
Once considered rare, celiac disease is now thought to affect one in every 150 people (about 1 percent of the general population), says gastroenterologist Kenneth Sharp, DO, with Lehigh Valley Health Network. “It’s one of the most common genetic disorders, and anyone can get it,” he says.
Celiac disease is more common in people of European ancestry, Caucasians and people with type 1 diabetes. More than 2 million Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease; however, recent studies suggest the disease is under-diagnosed.