What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease characterized by an inappropriate immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, and to related dietary proteins in rye and barley. This response leads to inflammation of the small intestine and to damage and destruction of the villi that line the intestinal wall. The villi are projections, small tissue folds that increase the surface area of the intestine and allow nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fluids, and electrolytes to be absorbed into the body. When a susceptible person is exposed to gluten, his body produces autoantibodies that act against constituents of the intestinal villi. As long as the person continues to be exposed to the proteins, he will continue to produce these autoantibodies. When villi are damaged or destroyed, the body is much less capable of absorbing food and begins to develop symptoms associated with malnutrition and malabsorption.
Found throughout the world, celiac disease is most prevalent in those of European descent. It occurs in about 1 of every 100 to 150 individuals in the US and can affect anyone at any age but is more common in infants and in those in their 30s and 40s. About 20% of those with celiac disease are over 60 years old. It is somewhat more common in women than men. The development of celiac disease is thought to be due to an inherited tendency that is triggered by an environmental, emotional, or physical event although the exact mechanism is not fully understood. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, about 5-15% of first-degree relatives (parent, sibling, or child) of a celiac disease patient will also have the condition.