FeaturesDec/Jan 2010 Issue

Searching for Answers: Celiac and Gluten Sensitivities

Ruling It Out

The genetic test for celiac disease focuses on two particular markers—HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8.

“Ninety-nine percent of celiacs have either HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8,” says Alessio Fasano, MD, medical director at the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research.

Human leukocyte antigens (HLA) are proteins, of which DQ is a subset, that are found on the surface of almost every cell in the body and are a key component of the immune system. While everyone has slightly different HLA proteins, each of us has two sets, one inherited from each parent.

The snag with the genetic test is that having DQ2 or DQ8 doesn’t mean you have celiac or that you’ll ever develop it. In fact, up to 40 percent of the population has one of these markers and very few of these people will ever get celiac disease.

“There’s no predictive value of developing celiac with DQ2 or DQ8,” explains Fasano. Instead, it’s the absence of the DQ2 or DQ8 marker that’s useful information. Because the chances of developing celiac disease without having either DQ2 or DQ8 are extremely low, Fasano says that “the proper use of the genetic test is to rule out celiac disease.”

There’s little gain in testing someone already diagnosed with celiac, he says. Some celiacs elect to have the test out of curiosity but “for a biopsy-diagnosed celiac, it’s not a value-added test. The genetic information doesn’t change anything about their disease or treatment.”

But there are definite indications for undergoing genetic testing. Three different groups of people can benefit most.

1] Perhaps the largest group is the first-degree relatives of a celiac. These people are at risk of developing the disease, says Fasano, who regularly recommends screening family members with both HLA genetic testing and serological blood tests.

“HLA typing can determine whether doctors should keep an eye on an individual or not,” Fasano explains. “If the individual has a negative test result, the chances of developing celiac are low.”

For Jenna Farley of New York City, it was a relief to discover her newborn son didn’t carry the celiac gene. “I was diagnosed with celiac disease five years ago. When my son was born, I had him tested when he was just a week old,” Farley says. “My two sisters were tested and they both have the DQ2 gene. Now they know to be screened regularly for the disease.”

2] The second group that might consider genetic testing are individuals with medical conditions frequently associated with celiac disease, says Fasano. That includes patients with autoimmune conditions, such as Type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease and Addison’s disease, as well as certain genetic disorders, such as Down’s syndrome.

3] The third group is made up of patients like Abby who are struggling to find a diagnosis and want to know if their symptoms are due to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

“This group of patients is not insignificant,” says Fasano, “They may have suffered for years from ataxia [clumsiness symptomatic of a neurologic condition], brain fog or depression without a satisfactory diagnosis. At some point, they may have read about celiac disease and may have given the gluten-free diet a try. In many cases, their symptoms improve on the diet. But because celiac disease requires a 100 percent lifelong commitment to the diet, they want to know where they are on the spectrum of gluten sensitivity. The test can help distinguish if their symptoms are due to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.”

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the genetic test is that, unlike a blood panel or small intestinal biopsy, being on a gluten-free diet will not alter test results. Gluten-sensitive patients who cannot—or will not—tolerate a gluten challenge (the temporary reintroduction of gluten to the diet) may opt for the genetic test to rule out the disease.

Next: Counting the Cost

Comments (8)

I also went on a gluten free diet after reading what I could find, about Gluten Sensitivities because the way I was feeling. I didn't refer to a doctor concerning my symptoms. I didn't think that I would be helped. I really think that I need to be tested. I was wondering if you would have any advice on labs that do home test.

Posted by: mjm58 | November 5, 2014 2:15 PM    Report this comment

There are some pretty good paleo bread recipes out there, using coconut flour and almond flour and eggs, mostly. Paleo is definitely gluten free and touted by some to be the healthiest diet, as no grains at all, unless you want occasional rice, quinoa or oatmeal.

Posted by: Violet | November 4, 2014 10:31 AM    Report this comment

I haven't been diagnosed with Celiac, but was put on an elimination diet in the spring and during the reintroduction phase discovered that gluten, soy, and dairy (along with a corn and barley allergy from childhood) are no-no's! I am a senior and find this a very difficult time in my life, but am learning how to manage eating pretty much a Paleo diet. I find bread making has become somewhat of a chore now as I've always made my own. Now, not using gluten flours turns out to produce "bricks" for loaves. I now I have so many Gluten Free cookbooks, but they all use dairy (which I have learned to substitute other types of milk), but cheese is another story completely! I guess I'm just ranting, but I will learn how to manage.
Thank you for this article.

Posted by: Lougagne47 | November 4, 2014 9:44 AM    Report this comment

Can you give me more information on the names of labs for home testing kits

Posted by: kmuirhead | November 4, 2014 9:06 AM    Report this comment

We can choose to submit to expensive and sometimes inconclusive lab tests, or we can decide to let our own unique bodies be our guide. We now know what foods most frequently cause allergies, so we can try an elimination/reintroduction diet while keeping a food diary, including careful observation of symptoms and how we feel, and keeping in mind that some reactions can be delayed by as much as 72 hours, In any case, it is imperative that we always address healing our gut as part of the process of feeling better. As food allergy awareness grows, the community of people with multiple allergies also grows, and we become targets for new tests, procedures, and medications introduced by both well-meaning and profit-seeking companies. Good common sense, and sharing of ideas can be the best remedy for us all. Thank you, Living Without, for providing us with a forum for sharing.

Posted by: Sharon E | November 14, 2012 11:16 AM    Report this comment

Everyone likes the hard diagnosis but the better question is not whether a person has celiac disease or not but can they benefit from a gluten free diet (GFD). The treatment is the same whether a person has celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. I have read a couple of studies that found that light microscope analysis in a biopsy missed most of the gluten related damage. Scanning electron microscope techniques were about 5 times better at detecting that damage. Therefore many negative biopsies really aren't negative at all, just not detected due to using a method that is too crude to pick it up. So I would say intestinal biopsy is the gold standard of celiac diagnosis if using an SEM. Before you ask your doctor about that, you aren't likely to find someone willing to go that route unless you are dealing with a research center that happens to be working on that question.

So back to the original comment, a person just has to know whether the probability is high that a gluten free diet will be beneficial regardless of the accuracy of the diagnosis. In my practice we have had great success with people who were never tested but understand the relationship between their symptoms, that is autoimmune disorders etc. and gluten. Others need to see something in black and white in their hands before they will make the jump to the GFD.

The comment about concurrent dairy and soy allergies is important. Most people are not just gluten sensitive but are sensitive to a variety of other common foods too. As well as antibody and genetic testing for gluten related issues, we also routinely run tests with Cyrex Labs and Alcat for cross reactive foods, that is foods that people on a gluten free diet tend to eat that the body may also react to like various components of diary, other grains and even non-related foods like quinoa and buckwheat. Like I told a good friend who was suffering from a couple of autoimmune conditions that I was certain his problem was related to gluten and also certain that other factors were involved too. We are waiting for the Alcat testing to see what else is contributing to his misery.

We use Enterolab for our genetic testing. They have been doing this for years and understand very well the clinical significance of the results. Price is not $500 but $150 and is a simple, CSI-type check swap.
Daniel Schlenger, DC

Posted by: Daniel S | November 14, 2012 11:08 AM    Report this comment

I have been diagnosed with celiac for about 5 years now. Just the past few months I have felt bad every time I eat. I am afraid the new GF pizza place was not careful about cross contamination. I read that if the intestines are damaged (say eating gluten) then lactase can not be released to digest lactose. So often until the intestines are fully healed dairy is an issue because of a missing element of digestion as opposed to a dairy allergy. I am hoping to be able to add dairy back at some point, but am older and need longer to heal. Anyone heard of research on this? I'd love to learn more and/or verify this information.

Posted by: Katlyn S | November 13, 2012 9:35 PM    Report this comment

I could just insert my son's name into this story and it would be his. He is 10 years old and we've gone down the same exact path this year and literally visited the GI for results of his genetic testing yesterday. Same results - same story. Our GI did put him on a low fructose diet and we have found that to be helpful as well. We stay away from most packaged goods since most are highly processed and loaded with sugar - especially GF goods. Frustrating not to know exactly if he has celiac disease, but this path had made us highly aware of the foods that do harm our son's health and how we could improve our own eating habits and health from the foods we choose to put into our bodies.

Posted by: Natalie M | November 13, 2012 1:14 PM    Report this comment

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