What is Celiac Disease?

The physiology behind celiac disease and what it means to be gluten free

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications. (Celiac Disease Foundation)

Celiac disease is when the body reacts to ingesting a protein found in wheat, rye and barley called gluten. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their body has 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. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body. It occurs in approximately 1 of every 120 people.

Celiac disease 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 disease. There is no cure for celiac disease—but following a strict gluten free diet can help manage symptoms and promote healing.

Many people think that gluten can be eliminated simply by removing wheat from their diet, but gluten is in many processed food products (even tea!), so a gluten-free lifestyle often means eating clean, cooking from scratch more often, and avoiding processed foods. It’s also tricky when dining out in restaurants and at social gatherings. So much of socializing is centered around food! In fact, it can be a real shock to transition to a gluten free diet overnight.

There are many wonderful online resources to learn about celiac disease. One of my favorites is BeyondCeliac.org. They have a treasure trove of valuable and worthwhile information to help you along your gluten-free and celiac path. Their mission statement is Awareness, Advocacy, Action, and what most of us truly need while navigating this health and lifestyle change. I’ve personally spoken with many of the people behind this website and they’re just like you and me. Their goal is for us all to live the healthiest, best life we can live.