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What causes celiac disease?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Celiac disease is caused by your body's inability to differentiate between a protein called gluten and harmful substances that your immune system needs to fight. Gluten is found in foods that contain barley, wheat, and rye. When gluten reaches your small intestine, your body's immune system attacks it.

The attack on the small intestine causes damage to tiny hair-like strands that coat your intestinal wall, called villi. When the villi are damaged or destroyed, your body is unable to absorb many nutrients into your blood to nourish your body. Instead, they are discarded through your stool.

Celiac disease is genetic, so if you have a family member with celiac disease, you are more likely to have it. It is not understood exactly what triggers the onset of celiac disease; however, it often appears after your body has gone through a major event. Certain events known to set off celiac disease include pregnancy, giving birth, extreme stress, serious injury, surgery, or fighting an infection.

Rachel Begun
Nutrition & Dietetics

We don't know the exact cause of celiac disease, but it is a multi-factorial disease that requires both genetics and environmental factors to be triggered. About 30-40% of the population has one of the two genes for celiac disease, but only 1% of the population actually gets the celiac disease. That means environmental factors come into play to trigger the onset of celiac disease in those who have the gene. Potential environmental triggers may include: life stressors, such as pregnancy, serious infection/disease; change in the bacterial makeup of the GI system; lack of breast feeding; and introducing large amounts of gluten when first introducing foods to infants.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.