Celiac Disease Remains a Scientific Mystery. Here's What Doctors Know About the Cause

Gluten-free diets won't cause you to have celiac disease. Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

Doctors don't know much about celiac disease and the facts about it are relatively few. Scientists know that gluten consumption in patients triggers an immune response that can damage your small intestine. But how are the seeds of the disease planted in the first place? We also know that the autoimmune disease is genetic, but the causes are virtually unknown. According to Jeremiah Levine, pediatric gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health, researchers are puzzled why symptoms can appear in infancy for some while other celiac patients don't realize they have the disease until they reach their 70s.

One popular belief is that certain events can trigger celiac, making it active in people who already have the disease. According to the Mayo Clinic website, pregnancy, viral infections, surgery or emotional stress have been linked to the onset of celiac. In a very small study conducted in 2013, adults with confirmed cases of celiac also had more serious and frequent events before being diagnosed. In April, researchers found that mice who had been exposed to the common, harmless reovirus exhibited an immunological response to gluten after researchers made the creatures more susceptible to celiac, reports NPR.

Levine says the theory that people use to explain the disease's sudden appearance is mostly supported by anecdotal evidence. The thinking, he says, is that these life events cause intestinal damage, thus, activating the disease.

"Some of this material gets across the intestine and activates their immune system, so potentially anything that may damage that intestinal barrier may make you more prone to developing it in those people who are genetically predisposed," Levine explains. He further says that pinpointing the trigger of the disease is virtually impossible.

"A significant portion with people with celiac disease are asymptomatic when they're diagnosed," adds Levine, explaining that someone could have a trigger 15 years before any symptoms appear.

Getting pregnant or catching the flu won't increase your risk of celiac, says Levine. Rather, only people with the genetic markers for the disease are at risk. Roughly 30 percent of the population have the genes making them susceptible to the autoimmune disorder, but only about one percent actually suffer from the condition. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the disease is often undiagnosed because signs can be similar to those of other disorders. Typically, people don't get diagnosed with celiac until suffering with symptoms for 6 to 10 years.