Whether you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or some other autoimmune disease, the strong correlation between celiac disease and additional autoimmune diseases should compel you to understand this relationship.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this Gluten Intolerance School lesson:
- What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
- How Are Autoimmune Disorders Different From Allergic Reactions?
- How Is Celiac Disease an Autoimmune Disease?
- Why Is It Important to Understand The Relationship Between Celiac Disease and Other Autoimmune Disorders?
- A Trio of Common Causes
- Leaky Gut Syndrome Moves From the Fringe To the Mainstream
- Review: What You Need to Know
- Take the Quiz
What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
When you have an autoimmune disease, your body’s powerful immune system turns on your own body and attacks your own cells and tissues. Autoimmune diseases often don’t manifest symptoms right away. Sometimes the damage accumulates for long periods before you’re even aware of it. Some autoimmune disorders destroy body tissue, while others may either change the function of an organ or trigger abnormal growth of that organ.
Why this happens is still a mystery. While some combination of genetics, toxins (environmental triggers), drugs, bacteria and viruses are believed to be at the root of most autoimmune diseases, we still can’t predict or explain the exact trigger for most diagnosed autoimmune diseases.
Celiac disease is rare in that we know one specific environmental trigger, but still some people who have the celiac gene may go their entire lives eating gluten without developing celiac disease, so there appears to be another missing variable in the equation. Currently researchers are focusing on the changing bacteria in patients’ intestines.
Some common examples of autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Graves’ disease, and Hashimoto’s disease.
How Are Autoimmune Disorders Different From Allergic Reactions?
In an allergic reaction, your immune system over-reacts to a foreign substance the human body usually ignores. In an autoimmune disease, your immune system reacts to normal cells or tissues in your body that it usually ignores or accepts.
The exact mechanism can vary for different autoimmune diseases, while allergic reactions almost always involve the antibody Immunoglobulin E (IgE) activating white blood cells called basophils and mast cells. An allergic reaction is a type 1 hypersensitivity. An autoimmune disease does not involve a type 1 hypersensitivity.
This is why a peanut allergy can trigger a deadly reaction almost instantly (via anaphylactic shock) while celiac disease may do its damage without you experiencing any evident, tangible reaction to eating a piece of bread dense with gluten.
How Is Celiac Disease an Autoimmune Disease?
While celiac disease is often treated by laymen as some kind of food allergy, it is in fact an autoimmune disease. When people with CD consume gluten, their bodies generate anti-gluten antibodies. These antibodies attack the lining of the small intestine. What confuses many people is that unlike every other autoimmune disease, we actually know the environmental trigger of celiac disease: gluten.
However, it is not an allergic reaction to gluten. Gluten triggers the body to attack itself, and this can happen in a subtle, gradual manner rather than an immediate allergic reaction.
Why Is It Important to Understand The Relationship Between Celiac Disease and Other Autoimmune Disorders?
There are two simple yet troubling reasons you need to understand this relationship. First, autoimmune diseases often appear in pairs. If you develop any autoimmune disease, you have a much greater chance of developing another autoimmune disease. If you have type 1 diabetes, for example, you have a greater chance of developing celiac disease than the average population.
The second reason is that 30% of all people with celiac disease will eventually suffer from another autoimmune disease. So nearly one in every three people diagnosed with celiac disease will be diagnosed with another autoimmune disease. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for people with celiac disease to experience multiple autoimmune diseases.
If you have celiac disease, you need to appreciate this increased likelihood of developing additional autoimmune diseases. You and your doctor must pay close attention to your evolving health because of this potential consequence of your diagnosis.
You will want to minimize the consequences of any additional autoimmune disease by diagnosing it early and beginning appropriate treatment right away.
A Trio of Common Causes
Recent research on celiac disease has led to developments in the understanding of how and when many — and perhaps all — autoimmune diseases appear. At this point, research pioneered by the Mucosal Biology Research Center and the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine points to a trio of common causes among many autoimmune disorders (including celiac disease):
A foreign or environmental trigger: This is where celiac disease is unique. While researchers conjecture that they will find a trigger for other autoimmune diseases, celiac disease is the only one where we already know it: gluten.
A genetic predisposition: When you have certain genes, they create a predisposition for genetic expression by certain proteins. In celiac disease, the genetic expression of the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 proteins trigger the immune system to respond to gluten by attacking the intestinal lining.
Increased intestinal permeability: This is what many have called “leaky gut syndrome” for several years, and I find it the most interesting development in relating celiac disease to other autoimmune diseases. When you have a leaky gut, the tight junctions that typically hold intestinal cells close together instead come apart. This allows fragments of proteins and toxins through the intestinal wall, into underlying tissue and into the bloodstream. In celiac disease, fragments of the proteins in gluten (in particular gliadin) slip through these loosened junctions and incite the underlying immune system cells.
The fact that these three variables may be involved in most autoimmune diseases may also explain why so many people experience more than one autoimmune disease at a time. One question some doctors don’t like to see asked right now is this: Is it possible gluten has a role in triggering more autoimmune diseases than just celiac disease?
Leaky Gut Syndrome Moves From the Fringe To the Mainstream
I find intestinal permeability interesting because it reminds me of the development of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For years many patients and a small percentage of doctors believed it was possible to have a significant reaction to gluten without having celiac disease. Many conventional doctors didn’t accept this theory or thought of it as a sketchy, new age theory of gluten intolerance.
But in March of 2011 highly reputable research finally verified the existence of a non-celiac gluten sensitivity as a distinct, separate and legitimate condition in its own right, separate from celiac disease.
Similarly, “leaky gut syndrome” has been a term bandied about by naturopaths and a small minority of conventional doctors. Now, not only are reputable mainstream researchers and doctors beginning to refer to “increased intestinal permeability” as a legitimate condition, but they are considering it as a significant variable in better understanding all autoimmune diseases.
Review: What You Need to Know
This lesson covered a lot of ground. We went from defining autoimmune diseases, to defining how celiac disease was an autoimmune disease, to discussing how celiac disease research may help doctors better understand how all autoimmune disorders manifest in patients.
However, I want you to at least focus on how often autoimmune diseases appear in pairs or how often people with celiac disease develop other autoimmune diseases. If you already have an autoimmune disease and you’re concerned about possibly having celiac disease or you have celiac disease already, these high-correlation consequences must be discussed with your doctor.
Take the Quiz!
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