Celiac Disease is Dangerous

Celiac Disease is dangerous if left undiagnosed. Unfortunately, with the beyondceliac.org stat of ~83% of celiacs going undiagnosed, many people don’t know they may be facing complications related to celiac.

So what is celiac disease, why is it dangerous, and how can you prevent the dangers? That’s what we’ll talk about in this post.

Table of Contents

Celiac Disease is Dangerous if Unmanaged, Untreated or Undiagnosed - Complications of Celiac Disease - Tayler Silfverduk, Celiac Dietitian

What is Celiac Disease?

For anyone who isn’t aware, celiac disease is dangerous when untreated because it’s an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten. And if you’re not living gluten-free (the treatment for celiac) then it can cause a wide variety of complications.

This is because when you have celiac, if you eat gluten, an autoimmune reaction launches and can cause small intestinal damage, malabsorption, inflammation, and more. All of these reactions to gluten can strain the body if gluten is not removed from a celiac’s life.

Most directly relevant is the small intestinal damage that occurs when eating gluten with celiac. The duodenum is split into 3 sections, the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. With celiac disease, the primary site of damage is the duodenum.

In the duodenum, the damage extends to blunting villi (hair-like projections that help you absorb nutrients). On the villi there are micro-villi which continue to help with absorption. And housed on the micro-villi is the brush border which helps release some digestive enzymes like lactase. When the villi are damaged, often so are the micro-villi and brush border, impairing digestion.

This is why when people are diagnosed and still healing, they often have other food intolerances, like lactose intolerance.

What are the Dangers of Celiac Untreated Disease?

So we know celiac disease is dangerous because of the autoimmune reaction to gluten that can cause a cascade of inflammation, intestinal damage, and malabsorption. But how exactly do these consequences of celiac disease lead to more complications like bone disease, infertility, blood sugar imbalances, liver damage, etc.

Let’s tackle this one celiac disease complication at a time…

Celiac Disease is Dangerous if Unmanaged, Untreated or Undiagnosed - Complications of Celiac Disease - Tayler Silfverduk, Celiac Dietitian

Bone Disease is a Danger of Celiac

Celiac disease is dangerous because it can lead to some serious bone complications. In fact, a 2013 study found low-bone density affects up to 75% of celiac patients.

This is because the duodenum section of the small intestine is the main point of damage. This section of the small intestine is a major site of calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium absorption. But because of the damage, often people with celiac can’t absorb enough of these nutrients.

Because the body can’t absorb enough of these nutrients, it can compromise your bone health. For more on Celiac and Bone Health, click here.

Infertility: Another Reason Celiac is Dangerous

Another complication of celiac disease is infertility. Now for my readers who want to carry a baby, I know this is likely horrifying to hear.

Unfortunately, because of the malnutrition and malabsorption of essential nutrients needed for making a baby, people with celiac are at higher risk for infertility.

The good news is, if you’re experiencing infertility related to celiac, as you heal and live gluten-free, your fertility with celiac should improve.

Liver Health is at Risk With Celiac

Another danger of celiac disease is the increased risk of liver disease compared to healthy populations. With a 2012 study documenting a 2, 6, and even 8 fold increased risk of liver complications.

Unfortunately, we don’t fully understand why people with celiac are at such a higher risk for liver disease. Though some speculate the intestinal damage may allow more “toxins” to enter the blood flow and strain the liver as it works hard to push them out of the body at a higher rate. However, this is pure speculation.

Why it happens aside, the good news is, as someone lives gluten-free and heals, liver tests are generally expected to return to normal.

Kidney Health is in Danger with Celiac

Continuing the discussion of how celiac disease is dangerous, let’s talk about the kidneys. In a 2016 meta-analysis of research on celiac and the risk of kidney disease, researchers found people with celiac are at a higher risk for kidney complications.

The kidneys remove waste an extra body fluid from your body and maintains a balance of water, salts, and minerals. If your body isn’t able to remove waste and maintain balance in your blood, it can be detrimental to your health.

This much like the increased risk for liver complications in people with celiac, is not yet well understood. But the increased risk should be noted and monitored.

The Pancreas is in Danger with Celiac

Additionally, celiac disease can be dangerous because it can strain the pancreas. These complications of celiac are thought to occur because malnutrition is known to impair pancreatic secretions.

Pancreatic secretions are what help us regulate blood sugars using hormone like insulin and glucagon. Additionally, the pancreas releases enzymes that help digest protein, fat, and carbs.

Malnutrition is thought to play a role in this because if you’re consistently not getting the nutrients you need, it can impact enzyme production.

In fact, a 2012 study on 406 people with celiac in Sweden found that there was a 3 fold increased risk for celiacs to develop pancreatitis. The risk of development is highest within the first year of diagnosis as people are healing. This same study highlighted gallbladder complications related to the inflamed pancreas as well.

Blood Sugar Imbalances is a Danger of Celiac

Another dangerous complication of celiac disease is blood sugar imbalances. Alluded in the paragraph above, because often pancreatic secretions are strained, this can strain our blood sugars.

This is because two of the important pancreatic secretions that may be impacted are insulin and glucagon. Which help use keep our blood sugars from going too high or too low.

If our pancreatic secretions are impaired, it can be hard for our body to regulate our blood sugars using these hormones. Additionally, if we aren’t absorbing enough energy appropriately, it can also strain our blood sugars.

Again, like many complications of celiac, this function can be restored after diagnosis with healing but could also have long-term consequences if someone goes undiagnosed for a long period of time.

Is There an Increased Risk of Cancer?

Lastly, one motivating complication associated with celiac disease is an increased risk for cancer in the gut. Specifically, enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma (EATL), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and adenocarcinoma of the small intestine.

In a 2021 literature review of the risk of malignancies in celiac disease, they found that people with celiac had a slight increased risk in developing EATL and SBC (small bowel carcinoma).

And in a 2021 study on cancer risk in 47,241 celiacs, they found the highest risk was found in those diagnosed after 40 and was primarily present in the first year of diagnosis.

So where does that leave the cancer risk for people with celiac? It’s heavily suggested that treating celiac with a gluten-free diet can reduce risk of cancer and that the highest risk comes with untreated celiac in adults over 40.

Fighting the Dangers of Untreated Celiac

Now the above are some pretty scary complications of celiac disease. I hope that anyone reading this realizes the gravity of a celiac diagnosis and why:

  • Awareness of celiac is so important so people are diagnosed sooner
  • A strict gluten-free diet is so important so people can prevent not just intestinal damage but other severe consequences of celiac
  • This isn’t a scenario where providers just need to tell their patients to “go gluten-free” and they’ll be fine. Celiac disease is serious, living gluten-free is hard in a gluten-centric food system and culture, and more assistance is required to ensure success in celiac patients.

The good news is, as mentioned above, you can combat a lot of the dangers of celiac by living gluten-free and healing. A.K.A. many of these complications of celiac can be addressed through swift diagnosis and treatment.

This is done by making sure you know exactly how to avoid gluten and cross-contact with celiac. And, by monitoring celiac with the appropriate follow-up tests and seeking help if your follow-up tests are not improving. And if you recently diagnosed with celiac and you’re reading this. First, take a deep breath.

Second, know the most powerful thing you can do for yourself is live gluten-free. Make sure you’re getting the proper support from healthcare providers and you’re loved ones.

And if you need help, I cover all of the celiac safety basics in the Celiac Crash Course. It’s a self-paced course that walks you through the simple strategies you need to stay gluten-free and avoid cross-contact at home, in the grocery store, when dining out, attending dinner parties etc.

Click the button below to check it out!