Celiac Disease

What is Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a bowel disorder caused by a reaction to ingested gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley and contaminating all commercial-grade oats. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten damages the villi (small finger-like structures) that make up the lining of your small bowel. This injury prevents nutrients from being properly absorbed.

Celiac disease is considered an autoimmune disorder because it results in the body damaging its own tissues. It is the only autoimmune disease in which the trigger is known. Celiac disease is not a food allergy. If you have the disease, your body’s response to gluten differs from the immune response caused by a food allergy.

Rates of celiac disease have nearly doubled in the last 25 years in western countries. In Canada, about 110,000 people have been diagnosed with the disease. It is suspected that up to an additional 220,000 Canadians are living with the disease but have not yet been diagnosed. The disease can occur at any stage of life, including childhood. It may be slightly more common in women than in men, though the higher rate of diagnosis in women could be due to women getting more regularly scheduled health care.

Celiac or Gluten Sensitivity?

Some people test negative for celiac disease and show no signs of the intestinal damage. However, they still react badly to eating wheat with symptoms such as abdominal pain, fatigue, and headache. Such people are said to be gluten-sensitive or intolerant. Gluten sensitivity exists on a spectrum of severity, so not all people react to the same amounts or types of gluten-containing foods in the same way.

Recent evidence suggests that people with gluten sensitivity may react to other proteins or carbohydrates in wheat, so “wheat sensitivity” or “wheat intolerance” may be more fitting terms for the condition.

For those living with celiac disease, gluten causes normal villi in the small intestine to become damaged.

What causes celiac disease?

Celiac disease often runs in families. If you have a first degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) with the disease, you have an 8 to 15% chance of getting it, and a 5% chance of getting it if one of your second-degree relatives is affected. A few medical conditions can also put you at higher risk, such as:

ConditionCeliac risk
Type 1 diabetes4 to 15%
Other autoimmune diseases (thyroiditis,
rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis,
primary biliary cirrhosis)
3 to 5%
Down, Turner or Williams Syndrome4 to 8%
Osteoporosis (weak bones that fracture easily)2 to 4%
Deficiency in immunoglobulin A (IgA)10 to 30%
Irritable bowel syndrome2 to 5%

Not all people with a genetic vulnerability to celiac disease develop the condition. An additional “trigger” is needed, such as stress, infection, surgery or pregnancy. In children, recurrent gastrointestinal infections can bring on the disease.

What is Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a bowel disorder caused by a reaction to ingested gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley and contaminating all commercial-grade oats. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten damages the villi (small finger-like structures) that make up the lining of your small bowel. This injury prevents nutrients from being properly absorbed.

Celiac disease is considered an autoimmune disorder because it results in the body damaging its own tissues. It is the only autoimmune disease in which the trigger is known. Celiac disease is not a food allergy. If you have the disease, your body’s response to gluten differs from the immune response caused by a food allergy.

Rates of celiac disease have nearly doubled in the last 25 years in western countries. In Canada, about 110,000 people have been diagnosed with the disease. It is suspected that up to an additional 220,000 Canadians are living with the disease but have not yet been diagnosed. The disease can occur at any stage of life, including childhood. It may be slightly more common in women than in men, though the higher rate of diagnosis in women could be due to women getting more regularly scheduled health care.

Celiac or Gluten Sensitivity?

Some people test negative for celiac disease and show no signs of the intestinal damage. However, they still react badly to eating wheat with symptoms such as abdominal pain, fatigue, and headache. Such people are said to be gluten-sensitive or intolerant. Gluten sensitivity exists on a spectrum of severity, so not all people react to the same amounts or types of gluten-containing foods in the same way.

Recent evidence suggests that people with gluten sensitivity may react to other proteins or carbohydrates in wheat, so “wheat sensitivity” or “wheat intolerance” may be more fitting terms for the condition.

For those living with celiac disease, gluten causes normal villi in the small intestine to become damaged.

What causes celiac disease?

Celiac disease often runs in families. If you have a first degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) with the disease, you have an 8 to 15% chance of getting it, and a 5% chance of getting it if one of your second-degree relatives is affected. A few medical conditions can also put you at higher risk, such as:

ConditionCeliac risk
Type 1 diabetes4 to 15%
Other autoimmune diseases (thyroiditis,
rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis,
primary biliary cirrhosis)
3 to 5%
Down, Turner or Williams Syndrome4 to 8%
Osteoporosis (weak bones that fracture easily)2 to 4%
Deficiency in immunoglobulin A (IgA)10 to 30%
Irritable bowel syndrome2 to 5%

Not all people with a genetic vulnerability to celiac disease develop the condition. An additional “trigger” is needed, such as stress, infection, surgery or pregnancy. In children, recurrent gastrointestinal infections can bring on the disease.

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