St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. For some of you, this might mean you’re in the throes of perfecting your favorite gluten-free soda bread recipe or following rainbows in search of pots of gold. Here at Nima we’re honoring St. Patrick’s Day by learning about the history of Celiac disease in Ireland.
Research still hasn’t exactly proven why certain genes and environmental factors cause Celiac disease; however, studies show that this autoimmune disorder, characterized by an intolerance for gluten, is quite common among people of Northern European descent and is especially prevalent in Ireland. Approximately 1 in 100 people in Ireland live with Celiac disease and the Celiac Society of Ireland currently reports a list of approximately 5,000 active members.
The reasons behind this phenomenon are almost as mysterious as leprechauns themselves. No one is completely sure why the Irish (and those of Irish descent) experience such high rates of Celiac disease. We found one theory that considers the dietary history of Ireland.
Potatoes might come to mind when you think of Ireland and food, but Irish diets in the 16th and 17th centuries were predominantly grain-based. Prior to the infamous potato famine in 1845, oats were one of the only sources of gluten consumed in a traditional Irish diet. However, as industrialization came into full swing, the costs of food sources like oats and dairy dramatically increased. These staples began to disappear from common diets and the potato, a cheap and easy-to-grow crop, became increasingly significant. Since then, the Irish diet has been historically very low in gluten. Some researchers believe this has allowed gluten-intolerant genetic traits to persist, ultimately leading to the high incidence of celiac disease in Ireland today.
According to Dr. Sheila Crowe, a professor of gastroenterology (the study of the digestive tract and its disorders) at the University of Virginia, “Celiac disease [is] most common in the Irish population” due to being predisposed to specific genes involved in autoimmune diseases. Although this is true, she also believes that the Irish population is not alone in its higher disposition to the disease. Many people living in other European countries carry genes that similarly predispose them to Celiac disease.
Now that we’ve done our research on the high rate of Celiac disease in Ireland, we know there’s still a lot left unknown about its history. One thing’s for sure, though: we’ll definitely be thinking about more than just shamrocks and corned beef as we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year.