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The Relationship Between Celiac Disease and Gluten: Dr. Andrea Purcell presents an insightful look at this common autoimmune disease

Jul 01, 2012 08:03AM ● By By Andrea Purcell, NMD

Once considered rare, celiac disease is now a common autoimmune disease, afflicting one in 133 people, according to the National Institutes of Health. It is estimated that nearly 3 million Americans have celiac disease, but only about 100,000 are diagnosed. In fact, the average patient is not diagnosed with celiac disease until 11 years after first experiencing symptoms of the disease. Because celiac disease is genetic, first- and second-degree relatives often share the diagnosis.

Diagnosis of celiac disease can be challenging because it can mimic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, and others. Symptoms may include intestinal gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fatigue or low energy, kidney or liver pain, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, eczema, dry skin, rash, inability to lose or gain weight, chronic anemia or constipation. Due to increased public awareness, it is anticipated that 500,000 new cases will be diagnosed in 2012.

What is Celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a genetic intolerance to the gluten protein contained in wheat, rye, spelt and barley. The allergy to gluten damages the absorptive capability of the small intestine, causing malabsorption of nutrients. This leads to severe depletion, which over time can lead to total body breakdown affecting every organ system. There are no drugs to treat celiac disease, and the current recommendation is the avoidance of any and all gluten products.


Celiac disease is diagnosed using a tissue trans glutaminase (TTG) blood test and biopsy of the gastrointestinal tract. Gluten must be consumed in the diet for four to six weeks before and during testing. Testing is important for three reasons: it can help a doctor make a confident diagnosis; celiac disease is genetic, so if one family member has it, others may have it, too; and early detection may help patients get treatment sooner and get better faster

Why is it so prevalent?

A recent study published in the Annals of Medicine found that people could lose their tolerance to gluten as they age. These people are not born with the genetic intolerance commonly seen with celiac disease, but develop it later on in life. This suggests a weakening of digestive function due to repeated exposure to gluten and other food allergens, which can cause a slow breakdown of the digestive lining known as “leaky gut.” Other factors that contribute to digestive breakdown are toxin exposure, antibiotics, medications, processed and genetically modified foods, and even vaccines. Additionally, many celiac patients have other food allergens that result from the weakening of the digestive lining.

It is known that certain medications can weaken and even damage digestive function. In the journal Nature, a study has linked Accutane, a drug used to treat acne, to an increase in celiac disease and IBS. Scientists state that the active component in the drug can exacerbate the presentation of celiac disease in patients that had cases mild enough to be asymptomatic prior to taking the drug. Plaintiffs have won more than $45 million in compensation for Accutane side effects such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Buyer Beware

As awareness builds, so does the availability of gluten-free products, and it is easier than ever to find gluten-free breads, cakes, cookies, and brownie mixes. However, buyer beware—gluten-free eating is not necessarily synonymous with healthy eating. Gluten-free baked goods are still processed and may contain unhealthy sugars and oils. The guidelines for healthy eating still stand, whether or not an individual is gluten free; single-ingredient, fresh, whole food from farm to table is the best way to go.

Dr. Andrea Purcell, in private practice at Longevity Medical Health Center, in Phoenix, has just published a book, Feed Your Cells! 7 Ways To Make Health Food Fast, Easy, and Gluten Free. For more information call 602-493-2273 or visit or