Defining gluten intolerance and celiac disease begins with understanding one basic human function: digestion. A miraculous process of design, the process of digestion takes the foods and beverages we consume, breaks them down, extracts the nutrients, and makes them transportable to nourish our bodies. But like any other process of the human body, digestion can malfunction.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disorder that causes an inability to digest a specific protein known as gluten. Gluten is found in the cereal grain families of wheat, barley, and rye. This inability to process is due mostly to a fragment of gluten known as gliadin and begins in the small intestine, the place responsible for much of the digestive and absorption process of foods. Celiac disease is considered to be full-blown gluten intolerance.
The body is naturally designed to defend itself from foreign or “non-self” invaders to keep healthy. But an autoimmune disease is a condition where the body is tricked into attacking itself, thinking that protein and tissues of the body are “anti-self.” In the case of celiac disease, the small intestinal wall lined with villi becomes the victim of the body’s self-attack and is visibly damaged.
To illustrate, envision a healthy small intestinal wall lined with little, protruding, fingerlike hairs known as villi. Healthy villi act as the body’s welcoming committee for food, granting the entry of necessary nutrients to the rest of the body for survival. But for a body that views gluten as an “anti-self” or foreign substance, the body, or specifically the intestinal wall, turns against itself. The villi respond by refusing entry of gluten through the small intestine. This continual mode of attack on gluten, each time it’s consumed, causes inflammation of the villi. With continued consumption of gluten, the villi “flatten,” making the surface area of the small intestinal wall abnormally smooth and no longer able to properly digest and absorb all of the valuable nutrients from food as it was designed to do. As a result, the body suffers from a state of malabsorption, and it can experience a multi-faceted range of physically uncomfortable symptoms and long-term complications. This state of intestinal distress is known as celiac disease.