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Warning! A Virus Might Be the Cause of Celiac Disease

By Hillary Eaton ; Updated March 16, 2018

While there are many reasons you may choose to go gluten-free, having celiac disease leaves you without any choice at all — go gluten-free or face the possibility of serious health issues and even death. While scientists have known for quite some time that genetic predisposition plays a key role in developing the autoimmune disease, a new study suggests that celiac disease may actually be triggered by a common virus.

The study, which was recently published in Science, showed that there is a link between reovirus and the development of celiac disease. Scientists from the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found the link when administering reovirus to a test group of mice that began to show a bizarre side effect. Once the mice were given the pathogen, they slowly began to show signs that their immune system was becoming more and more sensitive to the presence of gluten in their diets.

Terrence Dermody, an author of the study, told NPR: “It’s all about the timing. The idea is that when the virus and gluten are introduced at the same time, the immune system mistakes the gluten-containing food as dangerous.”

With this information, the scientist also began to look at blood samples of people who were previously diagnosed with celiac disease. What they found was that those that had celiac disease also had high antibodies for reovirus, meaning that they had likely contracted reovirus before.

The truly frightening part: Many people have had reovirus without even knowing it. The virus is common, typically presenting itself in the form of short-lived vomiting and diarrhea.

It’s not time to fly into panic mode just yet, though. Because the correlation of the virus and gluten intolerance relies so much on timing, the main worry is developing the virus as a child. New Atlas explains, “Since it takes time for the human immune system to develop, young children are particularly vulnerable to infection, and if a reovirus infection happens to coincide with the first exposure to gluten in a child who’s genetically predisposed to celiac, it could cause a perfect storm of gluten intolerance.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, with this information there’s a lot we can do to prevent celiac disease in the future. If the virus can trigger it, then vaccinating young children who may be at genetic risk of developing celiac disease against the virus might be able to stop it.

Take that, celiac disease.

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