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Did you know DNA determines your risk of celiac disease?

Genetic changes explain why some of us are more sensitive to gluten than others

From Weight Watchers to the Atkins diet to juice cleanses, we live in a society that continuously swings through diet fads. When you walk into any supermarket, it is hard to miss the latest food trend embraced by consumers and the food industry alike; the gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye or barley, and gives bread the chewy texture that we all love. However, when gluten signals your immune system to target normal, healthy cells, it leads to celiac disease (CD)

The gluten-free movement was spurred on by a study lead by an Australian group in 2011. They concluded that gluten causes digestive problems, even in people without CD. Yet two years later, the same group failed to duplicate these results. However, the damage was already done. In Australia, for every person diagnosed with CD, 20 additional people are following a gluten-free diet. In the US, retail sales from gluten-free products are predicted to reach 23.9 billion dollars by 2020 – a massive 6-fold increase from the 3.8 billion dollars in 2011.

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CD is an autoimmune disease. It is caused by your immune system attacking and destroying healthy cells. CD differs from food allergies, because antibodies, which are involved in an allergic reaction, do not play a role in the autoimmune response occurring in CD. CD symptoms usually take 48-72 hours to develop, compared to the immediate reaction seen with food allergies. 

Initial signs of CD include digestive problems, like bloating, stomach aches and diarrhea. These symptoms can often be mistaken for a number of other conditions, like lactose intolerance or Crohn’s disease. Moreover, some individuals develop secondary health problems, without having any of the typical digestive symptoms, making it very difficult to diagnose CD solely based on symptoms. If left undiagnosed, the symptoms of CD can worsen, leading to severe symptoms like anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, depression and epilepsy. The main risk factors for CD are genetic changes in two immune system genes, HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1.

HLA genes encode proteins that are normally involved in alerting the immune system against harmful foreign bodies, such as viruses and bacteria. When a person with CD eats anything that contains gluten, the mutated HLA proteins recognize gluten as foreign. This signals special immune cells, called T-cells, to mount an immune response. The inflammation from this aberrant immune response causes severe damage to the intestinal lining, and the loss of cells that are essential for nutrient absorption.

Undiagnosed CD is very dangerous. Even small amounts of gluten can cause severe intestinal damage, leading to life-threatening conditions. If you think you might be sensitive to gluten, a proper diagnosis of celiac disease, especially if it runs in your family, just might save your life. Genetic changes in HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1 predispose individuals to CD; but only a subset of the people with these genetic changes will actually experience gluten-intolerance. This indicates that other genetic and environmental factors are also involved in the development of CD. 

The unnecessary elimination of gluten from your diet can also have drawbacks. Going gluten-free often means you are not consuming enough whole grains. These healthy dietary components are known to boost heart and metabolic health. Two recent studies have shown a link between gluten-free diets and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. Our DNA Celiac Disease Test will accurately determine if you carry any celiac-associated genetic variants. If you are lucky enough to not carry these risk variants, you can essentially rule out celiac disease and start looking at other dietary components that might be affecting your digestive health.

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