Joe and Teresa Graedon

Have you been avoiding gluten? Twenty years ago, you might never have heard of gluten. The name “celiac disease” probably would have sounded exotic. No longer. Now doctors diagnose this disorder on a regular basis.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects tissues throughout the body. Clinicians usually focus on the digestive tract, though, because that is where the trouble starts.

When susceptible people eat foods containing gluten, their immune systems attack the cells lining the digestive tract. The resulting damage can interfere with nutrient absorption. As a result, patients can experience problems such as anemia, fatigue, weakened bones, peripheral neuropathy, distinctive skin rashes, migraines or dementia. People with celiac disease are also four times more likely to die prematurely.

What foods contain gluten? Anything made of wheat, barley or rye. That includes beer as well as bread, pasta, some soy sauces, hot dogs, bouillon cubes and even pickles. Avoiding gluten completely is the one and only treatment that works.

Doctors used to think that celiac disease was rare, affecting perhaps 1 in 5,000 people. Since the early 21st century, though, researchers have determined that celiac disease is far more common than that. Current estimates are that approximately one person in 130 has celiac disease. One study found that more than 1% of the population worldwide is affected (Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, June 2018).

For people with a genetic predisposition for celiac disease, the rates are even higher. One study that screened close relatives of celiac patients found 44% of them also had the disease (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, September 2019).

There weren’t always so many cases of this disorder. A study of samples taken from Air Force veterans around 1950 shows that the prevalence of celiac disease among young healthy men at that time was 0.2% (Gastroenterology, July 2009). Why did the numbers of people with celiac disease increase so dramatically? Celiac disease is driven partly by genetics. Because genes don’t change quickly, they can’t explain the rapid rise in this condition.

But greater exposure to environmental chemicals might be contributing to the rise. A new study conducted by investigators from NYU Langone Health found that youngsters exposed to high levels of pesticides and related compounds called DDEs are twice as likely to be diagnosed with celiac disease than those with low levels (Environmental Research, May 12, 2020). In addition, young men with high levels of chemicals used as fire retardants are at double the risk.

Young women have five to nine times the chance of a celiac-disease diagnosis if they have been exposed to chemicals called PFAs (perfluoroalkyls). These compounds are found in nonstick coatings like Teflon as well stain- and water-repellant fabrics. Fire-fighting foam is an important source of PFAs that sometimes contaminates drinking water.

Such chemicals do not break down and may linger indefinitely in the environment. That is why they are often referred to as “forever chemicals.”

Nearly all Americans have some PFAs circulating in their bodies. As a result, the prevalence of celiac disease might keep increasing for the foreseeable future. You will find more about celiac disease in our eGuide to Digestive Disorders. This online resource is available in the Health eGuides section at

King Features Syndicate

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