Celiac disease is a chronic gastrointestinal disease that can significantly lower your quality of life. Doctors don’t really know what truly causes the disease. Weak evidence points to a couple of probable causes. But now a new study reveals that one cause may be a group of harmless stomach viruses.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disorder – like asthma or allergies. Here, your immune system overreacts to gluten when present in your small intestine. It starts attacking contact sites, which are usually your villi. Villi are hair-like linings in your intestines that are responsible for absorbing nutrients when you eat food.

But this intestinal damage is very gradual. It takes years of eating gluten foods before you notice any symptoms. That’s why only 20 percent or less of sufferers are diagnosed. But if you have Celiac disease, you’ll most likely experience nausea, bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, and nutritional deficiencies as you continue to eat gluten daily. That’s because your villi keep getting damaged to the point that your body can’t absorb necessary nutrients – which leads to malnutrition.

In America, Celiac disease is rather rare – about 1 percent of Americans (3 million) have it. (But that didn’t stop companies and the general public from making “gluten-free” a lasting fad.)

Known Causes of Celiac Disease

Doctors do say that Celiac disease can be genetic – but not significantly. They say that if your immediate family (parents or siblings) have Celiac disease, you’re only 10 percent more likely to develop it too. It’s also more prominent among Caucasians than any other race.

Some diseases also make you a bit more likely to develop Celiac disease, like Down syndrome, type 1 diabetes, Turner syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and Addison’s disease. Traumas can also put you at slight risk for Celiac disease – like surgery, viral infections, emotional trauma, and pregnancy.

A New Possible Cause of Celiac Disease

Now new research has discovered that there may be a specific virus that can set Celiac disease into motion when you’re a baby. Researchers infected mice with human intestinal reovirus and found the mice started becoming gluten-intolerant – their immune system started overreacting to gluten when it was present in their intestines.

Researchers then noted that Celiac disease sufferers have higher levels of antibodies against this reovirus than normal people. Does that mean that anyone who’s infected with the human intestinal reovirus ends up with Celiac disease? No. In fact, almost every adult has antibodies against the reovirus because it’s almost as common as the cold virus. The reovirus itself hasn’t been linked to causing any illness – even though it’s been detected in feces of both normal children and children suffering from diarrhea, enteritis, and other GI diseases.

They theorize that the reovirus is primarily contracted when children get feces into their mouths.

But remember that Celiac disease is somewhat genetically inherited – and researchers think that’s how the reovirus can indirectly cause Celiac disease. If you’re not genetically susceptible to Celiac disease, getting infected with the reovirus is unlikely to cause Celiac disease.

But if you’re genetically predisposed, then the reovirus can cause a domino effect. They say that during your first year on earth your immune system is developing and very influencable. Somehow, if the virus infects your gastrointestinal system and your immune system learns to fend it off, it also confuses it to forever overreact to gluten (if you’re genetically predisposed).

Because of this, researchers advise getting infants who are genetically predisposed to Celiac disease vaccinated for the human intestinal reovirus during their first year. They say this may curb the possibility of reovirus-induced Celiac disease, but it’s not a 100 percent certainty.