What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac Disease is basically an intestinal condition caused by a negative auto-immune response to gluten, a protein that can be found in wheat, rye, and barley. This is distinct from an allergic reaction to wheat, but it is no less dangerous. The criteria for diagnosing Celiac is traditionally a small intestine biopsy: flattened villae indicate a positive confirmation. The intestines are damaged by auto-immune chemicals sent by the body to fight the protein, and eventually the intestine loses the ability to absorb food. The tissue damage also increases the risk of malignancies developing later on…
Although the condition has been historically defined by the status of the intestines, it really is a whole-body auto-immune condition. The emphasis has been shifting toward blood testing – and more patients are finding the diagnosis they need.
Untreated Celiac Disease is a killer, with mortality and malignancy rates out-pacing the general population by significant margins. Its also fairly common, affecting about 1% of the population.
The symptoms are open-ended. The patient may be underweight or overweight, constipated or constantly suffering diarrhea. There might be an intensely itching skin irritation, or exhaustion, or symptoms of malnutrition and dehydration. Then again, there may be no symptoms at all.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that it has been extremely under-diagnosed in the United States. The University of Chicago estimates that as few as 3% of all affected Celiac Disease patients have been correctly diagnosed – and on average, those lucky few have waited 11 years from the onset of symptoms until the diagnosis was made.
Random sampling and records from nations with universal screening indicates that Celiac Disease affects between 1 in 90 and 1 in 133 people. This is about 2.5 million Americans – and yet only about 75,000 are diagnosed.
Gluten Protein: “Killer” Plant Defense
Plants need to defend themselves, too. I think gluten is a great example of this plant defense, even if most of the human population has by now adapted around it. The protein is an incredibly complex chain of amino acids that includes a significant dose of opioid peptides (mimicking the effect of opiates in the brain) and phytohormones. In “normal” digestive systems, these are no problem – but in a compromised digestive system often accompanied by “leaky gut” you can start to see how the protein wreaks havoc on an unprepared immune system.