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, the person's body produces an immune response. Immune cells cause damage to intestinal villi and immune proteins called autoantibodies may be produced as well.
As long as the person continues to be exposed to the proteins, that person will continue to produce an immune response and autoantibodies. When villi are damaged or destroyed, the body is much less capable of absorbing food and the affected person 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 out of every 100 to 150 individuals in the U.S. and is somewhat more common in women than in men. It can affect anyone at any age but occurs more frequently in infants and in those in their 30s and 40s. Celiac disease was once common only in infants and was very serious. Demographics of the disease have changed over time and it is now seen more often in adults.
The development of celiac disease is due to an inherited disorder that is thought to be 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 4-12% of first-degree relatives (parent, sibling, or child) of a person with celiac disease will also have the condition.