Celiac Disease

The ABCs of Autoimmune Disease

An autoimmune disease is a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells. There have been more than 80 autoimmune diseases that have been identified. Common types of autoimmune disease include: type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. Celiac disease is often mistaken as a gluten allergy, but it’s actually an autoimmune disease. However, it’s usually best to say you have a “gluten allergy” when dining at a restaurant because that’s how most staffs are trained.

One in five people, approximately 50 million Americans, suffer from autoimmune diseases. Women are also more likely to have autoimmune diseases than men. Autoimmune diseases tend to run in families, and celiac disease is no different. Celiac disease is hereditary and first-degree relatives, such as parents or siblings or children, should be checked, especially if symptoms start developing. When my twin brother and I were 18 years old, it was suspected that my brother might have celiac disease, too, but the test came back negative.

Our body’s immune system protects us from disease and infection, but if you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in your body. Autoimmune diseases can affect many parts of the body, but common symptoms are dizziness, fatigue, and joint pain.

Celiac disease involves an immune reaction to eating gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. This condition cannot be cured and the only treatment is to adhere to a strict, gluten free diet. There are a large variety of symptoms, but common symptoms include bloating, constipation, gas, diarrhea, fatigue, anemia, and osteoporosis. However, there are also many people who have no symptoms. This is known as “silent” or “asymptomatic” celiac disease.

The causes of autoimmune diseases remain a mystery, but extensive research has shown that it’s a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Celiac disease, in particular, is hereditary and has to be “triggered.” Just because a person has the right genes doesn’t mean that they’ll develop celiac disease. Celiac disease can be triggered by severe stress, viral infection, pregnancy, and childbirth. When I was diagnosed at three years old, my celiac disease was likely triggered by a viral infection.

No single test can diagnose most autoimmune diseases. For celiac disease, your doctor may order blood tests to help diagnose celiac disease. If the results indicate celiac disease, your doctor may then order an endoscopy to examine your small intestine and do a biopsy, in order to look for damage to the villi. Villi are finger-like projections in the small intestine that flatten when someone with celiac disease consumes gluten. The villi help absorb nutrients for the body, so a person with celiac disease can become malnourished when consuming gluten.

In order for the biopsy to be accurate, the person being tested has to consume gluten for at least three months before a biopsy. This was hard for my parents because I was very ill and gluten was the likely culprit. Even at three years old, I had an idea of what was making me sick. For example, if I was given a hamburger to eat, I would pick off the bun and only eat the hamburger itself!

Autoimmune diseases can be rare and life-threatening. Celiac disease has become much more common over the last two decades. When I was first diagnosed, almost 25 years ago, I was the first celiac patient for my pediatrician and he didn’t have another case until 10 years after me. Also, once diagnosed as a celiac, healing begins right away as soon as you commit to a strict, gluten-free diet. Celiac disease only becomes life-threatening if someone is undiagnosed for a long time or continues to consume gluten long-term. Both of these can lead to serious complications.

It’s common to have more than one autoimmune disease at a time. Other autoimmune diseases that are linked with celiac disease include: Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes.

All in all, if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease and have been maintaining a strict gluten free diet and are still struggling with your health, you may need to consult with your doctor about other autoimmune diseases or disorders that could be linked to celiac disease. Also note that it does take time for your body to heal once you begin a gluten free diet. In time, though, you should hopefully start feeling much better!

“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”

Hippocrates

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