Link Discovered between Celiac Disease and Osteoporosis


People who have celiac disease should pay attention to their bone health, according to researchers from the University of Edinburgh. They have a found a link between the autoimmune disorder and the development of osteoporosis.

Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with its ability to absorb nutrients from food. People with celiac disease (also called celiac sprue) cannot tolerate a protein called gluten which is found in wheat, rye, and barley. It is a genetic condition that can be triggered or become active after pregnancy, viral infection, severe emotional stress, or surgery. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, about 2 million people in the United States have the disease.

This study was the first time scientists found that an autoimmune response can directly damage bones. They studied a protein called osteoprotegerin, which in healthy people is critical in maintaining bone health by controlling the rate at which bone tissue is removed. In 20 percent of people who have celiac, their body produces antibodies that attack osteoprotegerin. The result is rapid destruction of bone and the development of osteoporosis.


The fact that people with celiac often develop osteoporosis has been known for many years, yet experts believed the osteoporosis was caused by an inability of celiac patients to properly absorb calcium and vitamin D. Both of these nutrients, along with magnesium, boron, and vitamin K, are essential for bone health. Other natural substances, including green tea and omega-3 fatty acids, appear to play a role as well.

This new finding allows clinicians to ensure people with celiac are treated properly to prevent osteoporosis. The Edinburgh researchers found that the form of osteoporosis they discovered in the celiac patients does not respond to supplementation with calcium and vitamin D, but that it can be treated with drugs that prevent bone loss, such as bisphosphonates.

Professor Stuart Ralston from the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, the lead researcher on the study, was quoted on BBC News as saying that “Testing for these antibodies could make a real and important difference to the lives of people with [celiac] disease by alerting us to the risk of osteoporosis and helping us find the correct treatment for them.” Individuals who have celiac disease may want to consult with their physicians about testing for osteoporosis and addressing proper treatment.

BBC News, October 8, 2009
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease
Science Daily October 7, 2009