When you have one autoimmune disease, you are at greater risk for developing another. While scientists are not certain why this is the case, research suggests that genes play a role. An environmental factor, like a virus, is also often involved.
“The fact that people with one autoimmune disease are likely to have another is likely because they have a genetic pre-disposition for a number of autoimmune diseases,” said Stephen Miller, director of the Interdepartmental Immunobiology Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “And for most autoimmune disease, some sort of infection is the trigger.”
The risk of celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune condition, is increased in those with other autoimmune diseases and vice versa, according to Miller, also a scientific advisor to Beyond Celiac, a celiac disease patient advocacy organization.
The most common link with celiac disease is found in Type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto thyroiditis, Sjögren’s syndrome and autoimmune liver disease. In fact, these conditions are seen as red flags that indicate celiac disease testing is needed. The relationship with Type 1 diabetes is well-established, with 3-7 percent of patients estimated to have celiac disease. Celiac disease is four times more common in those with thyroid disease than the general public, most likely because of common genes, and seven times more common in children with juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
Additionally, a 2018 study found that those who have rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other rheumatic diseases were about three times more likely to have celiac disease than the general population. The study concluded that celiac disease diagnosis and adoption of the gluten-free diet could improve the absorption of drugs prescribed to treat these patients.
In 2011 study of risks for celiac disease, researchers at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University recommended that adults and children with related autoimmune conditions be screened for celiac disease. Evidence suggests that when a patient also has celiac disease, the gluten-free diet used to treat it could have benefits related to the other condition and possibly prevent additional autoimmune diseases. Patients should discuss celiac disease testing with their doctors.
Alice Bast, CEO of Beyond Celiac, notes that it’s critical to better understand autoimmune disease connections. “It becomes clearer every day that what researchers learn about other autoimmune diseases will benefit celiac disease patients, and what scientists discover about celiac disease will benefit patients with other autoimmune diseases,” Bast says. “Ultimately, what we learn from one autoimmune disease can accelerate the research being done in another.”