“Yes, celiac disease has increased dramatically in the U.S. since 1950, and now affects 1 percent of the population,” says Joseph Murray, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “There’s good evidence that we’re not just getting better at detecting celiac. It’s also increasing in other countries, even in places where it was historically common, like Finland.”
“And celiac disease occurs at every age,” adds Murray. “It occurs out of the blue in elderly people as well as in children.”
When people who have celiac disease eat gluten–a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye–it triggers an abnormal immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. That can cause diarrhea, cramps, pain, bloating, and vitamin deficiencies. Avoiding gluten, even tiny amounts, can allow the damage to heal.
“There are many theories as to why celiac is increasing. Something may have changed in the way we grow, process, and eat wheat that may have affected our likelihood of getting the disease,” says Murray.
“There is a drive to provide higher-gluten wheat because that’s what makes bread springy and makes a good sliced loaf. And the ongoing breeding to generate new strains that are disease resistant or higher yield—that’s a prime suspect.”