The immune system is incredibly powerful and capable of causing damage to our own cells while attempting to get rid of pathogens. To make sure this doesn’t happen, many safeguards are in place to guide the immune cells toward pathogens that may cause harm, and away from the thousands of normal proteins that are found in our bodies and in our food.
If these safeguards malfunction, the immune system may recognize a normal, unharmful protein as a threat. In some situations, this can lead to autoimmune disease.
The prefix auto- means “oneself”. Autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system mistakenly recognizes a normal protein in the body as an invader and creates an immune response. Repeated attacks cause inflammation and damage to the tissue where that protein is normally found. As damage accumulates over time, the tissue becomes unable to do its job.
For example, in type I diabetes, the immune system specifically attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. When these cells are damaged or lost they can no longer make the amount of insulin the body needs.
Over 80 different autoimmune diseases have been identified.1 In most cases, the cause of the autoimmune disease is not known. Researchers think many different factors—such as our genes, environment, illnesses, and infections—play a part in triggering the disease process.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1% of the population.2 In contrast to many other autoimmune diseases, celiac disease has a known trigger—a protein called gluten, which is found in cereal grains such as wheat.
- Hayter SM, Cook MC. Updated assessment of the prevalence, spectrum and case definition of autoimmune disease. Autoimmun Rev. 2012;11(10):754-765.
- Fasano A, Catassi C. Clinical practice. Celiac disease. N Engl J Med. 2012;367(25):2419-2426.
Autoimmune disease - May occur when the immune system mistakenly recognizes a normal protein in the body as an invader and creates an immune response.
Gluten - A type of protein found in cereal grains. Wheat gluten is made of two proteins called gliadin and glutenin.
Immune cells - Specialized white blood cells (also called leukocytes) that fight infection.
Inflammation - A protective response to a pathogen or damage. Inflammation that does not resolve can cause damage to normal tissues.
Pathogens - Bacteria and viruses that can cause disease.
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