Celiac Disease and Type I Diabetes

Healthy, normal villi of the intestine vs. damaged villi Celiac Disease is a disease of the digestive system that damages the small intestines and causes interference with the absorption of nutrients from food. It is triggered by consumption of the protein called gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and malt. This protein cannot be tolerated by those who have Celiac Disease.

Because this is an autoimmune disease, when a person with Celiac Disease eats foods or uses products that contain gluten, their immune system is put into motion by damaging the villi (tiny fingerlike protrusions in the small intestines). These villi are what normally allow nutrients from the food to be absorbed through walls of the small intestines into the bloodstream for nourishment. Without these healthy villi, a person can become malnourished, no matter how much they may eat. At present, the only treatment for Celiac Disease is adhering to a strict gluten-free diet. Left untreated, people with Celiac Disease can develop further complications such as other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease and cancer.

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There also seems to be a growing link between Type 1 Diabetes and Celiac Disease. According to Richard A. Insel, MD., Executive Vice President, Research, at Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, research “demonstrates that Type 1 Diabetes and Celiac Disease share far greater genetic overlap than had been previously appreciated, which helps explain the high prevalence of both diseases occurring simultaneously in an individual and can provide new avenues for understanding the cause and mechanism for both diseases.”

Where Celiac Disease causes the body to attack the small intestines with the consumption of gluten, Type 1 Diabetes is another autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack it’s own beta cells in the pancreas. The development and the anatomy of the small intestines and the pancreas are closely related, and the intestinal immune system shares connections with the pancreatic lymph nodes. When the beta cells attack the pancreas in Type 1 Diabetes, this limits the pancreas’ ability to produce the insulin necessary to regulate blood sugar levels. Eventually, it is unable to produce any insulin at all, and if left untreated, a person can suffer a diabetic coma and even death.

Type 1 Diabetes is a very serious, and even life-threatening, condition. Insulin therapy is vital because it converts glucose from the food into energy. Without it, blood glucose levels will rise dangerously high and can quickly result in serious complications. Type 1 Diabetes often seems to strike suddenly and without warning, more commonly during childhood and will remain for life.

Those that are diagnosed with both Celiac Disease and Type 1 Diabetes face especially difficult challenges. Not only must they be vigilant about the ingredients in absolutely everything that they eat in order to make sure that they are avoiding gluten, they also must be just as vigilant about monitoring their blood sugar levels several times a day and administering insulin injections (or using an insulin pump) multiple times a day in order to keep blood sugar levels within a target range.

At the present time, both Celiac Disease and Type 1 Diabetes require lifelong treatment because there is not a cure for either.