Gluten and Celiac Disease: What Happens if I Eat Gluten?

Although awareness around celiac disease is growing, it is also true that many patients are ignorant of how gluten works in their body. Learn the exact process and the importance of a diet that skips it entirely.
Gluten and Celiac Disease: What Happens if I Eat Gluten?

Last update: 28 June, 2021

Gluten and celiac disease are two old enemies. The first thing that doctors recommend a celiac patient is to permanently eliminate the intake of this protein from their diet.

When they comply with a strict diet, the symptoms gradually begin to disappear. But have you ever wondered exactly what happens to our body when we eat gluten?

The question is an important one. It isn’t uncommon for doctors to refer to the disorder as a gluten allergy or gluten intolerance. But this doesn’t explain the exact mechanism that causes symptoms to develop. Today we’ll explain what happens physiologically and, as if that weren’t enough, what happens when you remove it from your diet.

Gluten and celiac disease: what’s the relationship?

Gluten and celiac disease are related
Celiac disease is the consequence of multiple inflammatory reactions that occur in the intestine. In fact, these are caused by the stimulation of the immune system.

First things first, gluten is a mix of hundreds of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and dozens of other foods. Gliadin and glutenin are its main protagonists, which are part of the diet of billions of people in the world every day.

In fact, some studies suggest that its intake in the western world is around 20 grams per day.

When a celiac person consumes gluten, a series of abnormal processes takes place within them. In theory, these processes are carried out for the good of the body itself, but, in practice, they end up harming it. Being an autoimmune disorder, what happens is that the body attacks itself by mistakenly identifying an invader. In this case, gluten proteins.

After the patient eats a portion of food with gluten, their body releases antibodies to defend itself. Specifically, it releases immunoglobulin A (simply referred to as IgA) and immunoglobulin G (IgG). In other contexts, this process would attack invading agents (viruses, bacteria and others), but its action is focused on the villi in the intestine.

It’s for this reason that serological tests are useful in detecting the disease. Through a blood test, the presence of these two antibodies (with a higher prevalence of the first) can be detected, which is an indication that the patient is celiac.

The villi are a kind of carpet that line the walls of your small intestine and whose purpose, among others, is to absorb the nutrients from the food you eat. At first, their damage is minor, but, over time, they atrophy. This prevents them from absorbing nutrients and this triggers some complications related to the disease.

Complications of celiac disease due to gluten

So, you now know why gluten and celiac disease don’t get along, but there’s still more to elucidate. As a consequence of this attack, you experience the classic gastrointestinal symptoms: flatulence, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation and so on. If the intake persists, others may appear, some of them directly related to the atrophy of the villi:

  • Anemia
  • Joint and bone pain
  • Wear on tooth enamel
  • Malnutrition
  • Short stature
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Fatigue

The above are just some of the consequences of the intestinal villi not being able to do their job correctly. When absorption is poor, the body can’t receive adequate amounts of zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin B12, vitamin A, and other essential nutrients that it needs to function.

As studies have rightly pointed out, nutritional imbalances are the main, but not the only, complication related to gluten intake and celiac disease. This, of course, is what happens in people diagnosed with celiac disease. This doesn’t occur in healthy people, and so they can consume the protein without major complications.

The chances of developing collateral effects are higher if the celiac continues to eat gluten. This is either because they don’t want to adhere to the diet or because they haven’t been diagnosed. Aside from the noted deficiencies, there’s also the risk of contracting another autoimmune disease. The Celiac Disease Foundation establishes the following margins:

  • 2-4 years: 10.5 percent
  • 4-12: 16.7 percent
  • 12-20: 27 percent
  • More than 20: 34 percent

If the patient is diagnosed after the age of 20, they’re 34 percent more likely than a healthy person to suffer from diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, Addison’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and so on.

The serious thing about this is that, according to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, it is estimated that 83% of patients are not diagnosed or, failing that, they are but with the wrong conditions. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on awareness of the disease and the willingness to seek professional help when its symptoms or complications are detected at home.

What happens in celiacs when they stop eating gluten?

Gluten should be avoided so as not to worsen celiac disease
Going to the doctor early and stopping gluten consumption brings excellent benefits for people with celiac disease.

Johns Hopkins Medicine advises us that a gluten-free diet is the only available treatment for celiac disease. This is good news for those diagnosed, because by eliminating gluten, their celiac disease will be controlled and the symptoms will gradually disappear.

The process then happens in reverse: when you completely omit gluten from your diet, the body stops producing the autoimmune response and, with it, the attack on the intestinal villi stops. This isn’t immediate, as it can take several months or even years for a complete regeneration to be achieved.

It all depends, in principle, on the level of damage to the patient (the Marsh-Oberhuber classification is used for intestinal atrophy). Some studies suggest a 4-week threshold for the main gastrointestinal symptoms to start subsiding until they finally disappear. On the contrary, other research indicates that the diet should be adjusted according to the tolerability of celiac disease.

Fortunately, today there are hundreds of gluten-free options that patients can easily access. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). stipulates that products of this type must have less than 20 parts per million. If it’s a regulated brand, it’s completely safe for you and will allow you to vary your diet and avoid monotony.

We end by reminding you about two things. First of all, don’t eliminate gluten if you haven’t been diagnosed as celiac, even if you suspect it. A specialist needs to start the process of diagnosis.

The second thing, as researchers point out, is to initiate a nutritional plan with the help of a professional nutritionist. In this way, you’ll avoid substituting one deficiency for another, and they’ll also guide you by giving you some very useful tips to deal with your condition.

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