What Really Causes Celiac Disease?

For many of us, it seems impossible to live without crusty white bread, creamy pasta dishes, and fluffy birthday cake. But for those who suffer from Celiac disease, these scrumptious foods — in their gluten-full forms — are out. While many people experience gluten intolerance or sensitivity, Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune condition, and it may have a number of causes.

Celiac disease is an immune system response to eating foods that contain gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, and rye (via Mayo Clinic). This response damages the lining of the small intestine and, over time, causes so much damage that your intestines become unable to absorb nutrients. As a result, people with Celiac disease often suffer from diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, bloating, and anemia. Symptoms unrelated to the digestive system can happen too, like skin rash, joint pain, headaches, and mouth ulcers. If left untreated, Celiac disease could cause other conditions, such as malnutrition, weak bones, infertility, miscarriage, lactose intolerance, cancer, and nervous system issues, like seizures and neuropathy. Over 2 million Americans suffer from Celiac disease, or 1 in every 133 people (via Johns Hopkins Medicine).

The factors necessary to develop Celiac disease

But what causes Celiac disease? Most researchers think it actually has multiple contributing factors, according to Verywell Health. It can develop at any time in life and is more common in people of European descent. Other risk factors might include Down syndrome, type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto's disease, and other autoimmune conditions. 

There's also a strong genetic component, so you may be 5-22% more likely to develop Celiac disease if a first-degree family member also has it. The majority of people with Celiac disease have one of two genes present, called DQ2 and DQ8, so if you have one of these genes, you may be more susceptible to Celiac disease. However, 30% of the population has one of these two genes and only 3% of those go on to develop Celiac disease, so there's more to it than just genetics.

The environment can also play a role. Researchers are still determining what triggers can contribute to Celiac disease, but it's thought that it can follow a traumatic event, pregnancy and childbirth, or other unrelated illnesses like viruses (via Verywell Health).  Currently, there is no cure for Celiac disease, and the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet.