Celiac disease (CD) is a digestive disorder associated with the ingestion of gluten, the common name for a class of proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley.
The disease is characterized by villous atrophy, a specific condition in which the villi of the intestinal cells are severely damaged or destroyed by smaller proteins called gliadins, which are part of the larger gluten molecule.
Villi are tiny brush-like extensions of the intestinal cells which have the important job of digesting your food and transporting the nutrients extracted to the rest of the body.
When the villi are damaged, the intestinal wall function is compromised. Toxins start to accumulate, good gut flora starts to die off, and as the disease progresses, the patient is less able to digest and absorb food in a normal fashion.
As the condition becomes more severe, the patient is unable to absorb macronutrients, minerals and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which results in deficiencies. In addition, the leaking gut results in more serious autoimmune reactions which can damage internal organs and tissues.
Why is Gluten So Detrimental?
Gluten contains smaller proteins called gliadins, which research as shown cause the intestinal wall to “leak” inappropriately. This leakage allows foreign proteins, bacteria, and toxins to leak out of the gut and damaged other parts of the body.
The body’s immune systems respond by building up antibodies to these foreign substances, and these antibodies trigger the immune system to attack the lining of the gut and damage it. These autoimmune reactions can result in symptoms that have not been associated with celiac disease in the past.
Because these more serious autoimmune reactions can affect the patient in many ways, celiac disease symptoms can vary widely. Some people who are diagnosed via genetic testing exhibit no symptoms at all. Some people only exhibit a condition called Dermatitis Herpetiformis, an intensely itchy, blistering skin rash that affects 15 to 25 percent of people with celiac disease.
A lack of symptoms does NOT mean a lack of damage, however. Asymptomatic suffers may be diagnosed with cancer or an autoimmune disease further down the road.
Gluten is a Narcotic Drug
Even after a celiac diagnosis, and the cause of the illness is discovered, some people find it difficult to avoid eating bread and other wheat products. This seems strange until you learn that some research has shown that partially digested wheat gluten has an opiate, druglike effect on the body. In fact, some feel that gluten addiction is as strong as heroin addiction.
Other studies have reported that gluten has a suppressive effect on the immune systems of celiac patients, and this may contribute to the poor health that celiacs experience.
Associations with Other Autoimmune Diseases
Research has shown that people with celiac disease tend to be diagnosed with other autoimmune-related diseases. There are many studies which reveal an association between celiac disease and:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Autoimmune thyroid disease such as Hashimoto’s Disease
- Autoimmune liver disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Addison’s disease, a condition in which the glands that produce critical hormones are damaged
- Sjögren’s syndrome, a condition in which the glands that produce tears and saliva are destroyed
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (reference here)
Several doctors who specialize in treating gluten intolerances have speculated that gluten consumption is also associated with:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Fertility Issues
Celiac disease has been diagnosed in people in every country in which testing has been done. More than 3 million people in the United States have the disease. In addition, most celiac suffers have a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child) who also have the disease but don’t know it.
These associations suggest gut issues and a leaky gut contribute to all autoimmune disease processes.
Alessio Fasano, the director of the Mucosal Biology research center and the center for celiac research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine says:
“Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that virtually the same trio of factors underpins most, and perhaps all, autoimmune diseases: an environmental substance that is presented to the body, a genetically based tendency of the immune system to overreact to the substance, and an unusually permeable gut.”
Gluten and Gliadin Studies
Research studies have identified a part of a wheat protein called gliadin in particular and found that it seriously affects gut permeability. Ingestion of wheat gliadin causes a rise in a substance called zonulin, which disrupts the tight junctions between the cells lining the intestinal wall. Damaging the integrity of the gut allows all sorts of dietary proteins to gain access to the bloodstream. The immune system sees the leaked proteins as invaders and launches an attack that damages the gut lining, among other things.
Some researchers have speculated that diabetes, arthritis and gastric diseases such as Crohn’s disease are all autoimmune diseases, meaning they are caused by autoimmune reactions to a “leaky gut”.
In addition, wheat protein acts as an insulin mimic, having the same effect on fat metabolism as insulin, which is to say, the higher the insulin (or insulin mimic) the more fat is stored.
Treatment for Celiac Disease
At present, the only effective treatment is a gluten-free diet. Examples of products that commonly contain gluten include bread, breading, batter, cereals, cooking and baking mixes, pasta, crackers, cookies, cakes, pies, and gravies, among others.
Other unanticipated sources of gluten may include candy bars, canned soup, canned meat, energy bars, ketchup, ice cream, instant coffee, lunch meat, mustard, pasta, processed meat, sausages, and yogurt. In addition, gluten is also commonly found in many vitamins and cosmetics, such as lipstick, and in the production of many capsules and tablets, where starch is a commonly used binding agent.
Patients should also avoid milk and other dairy products, as it is common for patients with celiac disease to be lactose intolerant. Dairy products can often be slowly reintroduced into the diet over time with successful treatment.
If patients with celiac adhere strictly to a gluten-free diet, the intestines can heal, and in most cases, this leads to a resolution of all symptoms. However, if the diet is not followed, over time the patient’s symptoms may worsen, and there is a possibility of developing iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, and other intestinal issues.
Studies report that it can take 2-3 months for the intestinal lining to return to normal, but some patients may never recover a normal intestinal structure, despite being symptom-free on a gluten-free diet.
Resources for Further Reading
- Zonulin and It’s Regulation of Intestinal Barrier Function: TheBiological Door to Inflammation, Autoimmunity, and Cancer. The newest publication from Alessio Fasano’s team.
- Celiac Surprises, an article by Alessio Fasano
- Celiac Center at the University of Maryland, directed by Dr. Alessio Fasano
- Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous To Your Health
- Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double-Edged Sword an academic paper by Loren Cordain, PhD
- Wheat Head post from Dave Dixon at Spark of Reason
- How Toxic is Wheat? a post by Peter at his Hyperlipid blog.
- Extensive list of links associated with a gluten-free diet
- An article about Alessio Fasano’s work at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.