Why is Celiac Disease So Common?
The number of people with celiac disease has been steadily rising over the last few decades. Today, roughly 1% of the entire world population suffers from celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder wherein gluten causes damage to the small intestine when ingested. Why is celiac disease so common today as opposed to a hundred years ago?
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, a condition in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the body. For people with celiac disease, consuming gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) causes the body’s immune system to attack their small intestine. This causes abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation, weight loss, fatigue, bloating, gas, nausea, and vomiting. It also causes damage to the small intestine, making it unable to properly absorb nutrients, which is why many celiac patients also suffer from symptoms caused by poor nutrition, such as anemia, headaches, joint pain and infertility.
It is important for celiac disease to be properly diagnosed because when a person doesn’t know they have celiac they will continue to consume foods and products that contain gluten. This can cause severe, permanent damage to their intestines, leading to long-term health problems and a higher mortality rate. Unfortunately, it is estimated that for every one person diagnosed with celiac disease, another 30 people go undiagnosed. Celiac is often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome or another condition.
Why is Celiac Disease So Common?
New research from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., suggests that celiac disease is four times more common today than it was in the 1950s. What is unclear is why this is the case. Numerous theories have been suggested to explain the rise in celiac disease cases, but no one factor has risen as the definitive cause. It is likely that the root cause is a combination of these factors.
- Improved testing – As we learn more about celiac disease and it becomes easier to diagnose, it is understood that there will be a rise in celiac cases. Initially many researchers in the early 2000s attributed these increased numbers to better disease recognition, but closer study of the data revealed that the uptick in cases could not be explained by improved testing alone.
- Use of gluten in everyday items – Nowadays gluten can be found in everything from processed foods and medications to make-up and shampoo. The ubiquity of gluten means people are being exposed to larger amounts of gluten on a daily basis than in previous years. While this constant exposure to gluten likely plays a role in why celiac disease is so common, researchers have yet to find a definitive link between the two.
- Environmental factors – One of the more controversial discussions around celiac disease is whether modern wheat is significantly different from the wheat grown decades ago. This theory posits that modern wheat has undergone significant changes which make it harder for the body to recognize and digest. However, other studies show no significant difference between modern wheat and wheat dating back to the 1860s. Instead, these researchers suggest the overuse of pesticides may be at the root of increased gluten intolerance.
- Changes in gut microbiome – Another factor under heavy scrutiny is the composition of bacteria that make up the gut microbiome. Bacteria in the gut play an important role in regulating the body’s immune response to food. Antibiotics are heavily prescribed and can cause significant long-term changes to the gut microbiome. Over the last two decades, numerous studies have been conducted that show patients with celiac have higher levels of certain gram-negative bacteria, such as Bacteroides and E. coli. However, whether these differences in microbiome composition are the cause or effect of celiac disease remains unclear.
Concerned About Celiac? Call Anchor Wellness Center Today
If you have been experiencing intestinal issues, call us today at (832) 246-8437 and schedule a consultation with Dr. Minni Malhotra, MD, FAARM, ABAARM. As a Board Certified physician in Family Medicine, as well as Board Certified with the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, Dr. Malhotra can help you develop a gluten-free diet and treat the complications of celiac disease.