Some people have instructions in their genetic makeup which make their body react to gluten as if it were an unwelcome invader.

GeneticsThis means that coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease. It is caused by a reaction of the immune system to gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. When someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, their immune system reacts by damaging the lining of the small intestine. The small intestine is between the stomach and the large intestine (the colon). In a healthy small intestine, there are small, finger like projections (villi) that allow the body to absorb nutrients from food into the blood. If you have coeliac disease, these villi become flat and you have difficulty absorbing nutrients.

We know from research that people with the condition have genes which mean they may develop coeliac disease but we don’t yet know why. It is important to understand that people with untreated coeliac disease will most likely be experiencing problems from additional ailments which can be caused by a lack of the crucial nutrients your body needs to keep you healthy.

Untreated coeliac disease

In untreated coeliac disease, villi become inflamed and flattened. In some cases, they can even disappear. This is called villous atrophy.

Doctor pointing at IntestineWhen the gut is damaged in this way, it means the body can’t absorb all the nutrients from food properly. This is called malabsorption.

This damage causes many of the symptoms of coeliac disease and adds to the health risks and complications found with coeliac disease such as anaemia and osteoporosis.

The way the body's immune system reacts to gluten can affect other parts of the body as well. For example, the skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis may develop.

The good news is that once someone with coeliac disease follows a gluten free diet, their small intestine will begin to repair and  absorb nutrients again.

To help you get on track, we are here to help anyone needing to live gluten free, whether due to coeliac disease or another medical condition. From children to adults and those caring for someone living gluten free, our resources will help you every day, and on every occasion.