This article appeared in the Spring 2005 edition of Celiac.coms Scott-Free Newsletter.
Celiac.com 04/10/2005 - Celiac disease is, by definition, a condition in which the intestinal wall is damaged as a result of eating gluten. It is a chronic illness in which the symptoms wax and wane1 for reasons that are not yet understood. Celiac disease is the result of genetic and environmental factors. We now know two HLA markers (DQ2 and DQ8) for the predisposition for celiac disease2. One environmental factor is, of course, the consumption of gluten, but there may be other environmental contributors. Recent research reveals that about 1% of the population suffers from this condition3 although most remain undiagnosed.
On the other hand, gluten sensitivity is characterized by antigliadin antibodies. This condition afflicts at least 12% of the general population4 and is found in patients with a wide variety of autoimmune diseases. In some studies of neurological diseases of unknown origin, a majority of patients show signs of gluten sensitivity4. These patients are mounting an immune response to the most common food in the western diet, yet many practitioners consider gluten sensitivity to be a non-specific finding, frequently counseling patients to ignore these test results. This is particularly unfortunate since a strict gluten-free diet has repeatedly proven helpful to patients who are fortunate enough to consult a practitioner who is versed in gluten sensitivity and its connection with autoimmunity.
Untreated celiac disease carries an added risk for a wide variety of additional autoimmune diseases. The most likely cause of this predisposition to additional autoimmune disease is a condition sometimes referred to as leaky gut syndrome. We know that gluten causes intestinal damage. We also know that this damage allows large undigested and partly digested proteins to leak into the bloodstream through the damaged intestinal wall. This leakage results in immune system production of antibodies to attack these foreign proteins as if they were invading microbes. The result is the production of a huge variety of selective antibodies, and each type recognizes a particular short chain of amino acids located somewhere in the proteins structure. Unfortunately, our own tissues can contain very similar or identical sequences of amino acids. Hence, by a process called molecular mimicry, we are producing antibodies that attack both the foreign food proteins that are leaked into our blood through the damaged intestinal wall, and similar amino acid sequences in our own tissues, often resulting in an autoimmune disease5.
The supposedly non-specific antigliadin antibodies in gluten sensitivity provide two important pieces of information: 1) That the intestinal wall has been damaged and is permitting leakage of food proteins into the bloodstream, and; 2) That the dynamic contributing to increased autoimmunity in celiac disease may well be an important contributing factor in gluten sensitivity5. The currently common view that celiac disease is a serious illness, while disregarding gluten sensitivity, is dangerous to gluten sensitive patients.
This bias is also a divisive element in the gluten-sensitive/celiac community. Whether a person has "biopsy proven" damage to the intestinal wall, if this person gets sick from eating gluten, or mounts an immune response to gluten, we are all in the same leaky boat (please pardon the pun). We need to work together to get a better understanding of gluten sensitivity in all its forms (including celiac disease). As a community, we need to discourage any kind of dismissal of illnesses that are partly or wholly mediated by gluten.
If we can stand together in our quest for widespread recognition of the damaging impact of gluten consumption, we can all enjoy a healthier life. Our descendants will also inherit a more gluten-savvy world.