A seemingly harmless virus that doesn’t produce symptoms may cause celiac disease in genetically susceptible individuals.

Celiac disease is not an allergy to gluten. It is a much more serious condition. It is an autoimmune disease. When a celiac consumes gluten, their immune system causes destruction to the lining of the small intestine. Once the intestinal lining has been harmed, the risk of developing other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, cancer and other conditions is significantly raised.

This particular study was conducted in mice. The researchers found that in mice genetically predisposed to celiac disease, those that were infected with reovirus were much more likely to mount an immune response against gluten. Infection with reoviruses is extremely common in humans. Interestingly, the viruses don't cause any symptoms, so you wouldn’t know if you’ve had it. This study also showed that people with celiac disease have higher levels of antibodies against reovirus, compared to people without the condition. This is evidence that they’ve been exposed to the virus.

According to study co-author Dr. Bana Jabri, director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, "A virus that is not clinically symptomatic can still do bad things to the immune system and set the stage for an autoimmune disorder".

Viruses are one of the biggest triggers of autoimmune disease. The Epstein Barr virus that causes mononucleosis is also a well known trigger of autoimmune disease. The thing is, nearly all of us are exposed to these viruses, but not everyone develops an autoimmune disease. You need to be genetically susceptible; the virus acts as a trigger. It is also important to remember that the healthier your immune system, the better able you are to overcome a viral infection. It is particularly prolonged, chronic viral infections that do most harm to the immune system. They chronically over stimulate the immune system and raise the risk of celiac disease and also other autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and lupus.

Getting enough sleep, eating well and managing stress are all vital for overcoming a viral infection. Selenium and vitamin D are very important too, and I find most of my autoimmune patients are low in those nutrients. Read more about keeping your immune system healthy in my book Healing Autoimmune Disease.