Mast Cells and Celiac – Part 1: The Immune System

Mast Cell Activation Syndrome and Mastocytosis are big topics. How these diseases relate to celiac disease is a big, complex interaction. In order to get to specifically how mast cells work, I think I need a basic understanding of some big concepts in the immune system. I’ve had to go back to learn a lot of concepts about the immune system simply to make sense of the mast cell interactions in the body. I’m sharing my learning journey with you!

Today, I’m going to start with innate vs. adaptive immunity and the basic types of immune cells – IgG, IgA, IgM, and IgE. Tomorrow, we are going to talk about an overview of what mast cells are and how they behave in the body. Finally, we will discuss how these mast cells are related to celiac disease, including their role in celiac disease activation and implementation in a gluten free diet. I’m not promising that is all there will be, but that is the plan as I see it today.

I’m hoping through this series our understanding of the immune system makes this mast cell interaction make sense. Because, simply talking about mast cells without all of this other information is really hard.

Alphabet soup of the immune system- IgG, IgA, IgE, IgM

The immune system has several types of Immunoglobulins (Ig) cells. Each has a different role or function within the system. Here is a description from Kid’s Health (link here) of each of the types of immune cells. I think it is the easiest best description I’ve found of the different types of immune cells.

  • Immunoglobulin A (IgA): It’s found in the linings of the respiratory tract and digestive system, as well as in saliva (spit), tears, and breast milk.
  • Immunoglobulin G (IgG): This is the most common antibody. It’s in blood and other body fluids, and protects against bacterial and viral infections. IgG can take time to form after an infection or immunization.
  • Immunoglobulin M (IgM): Found mainly in blood and lymph fluid, this is the first antibody the body makes when it fights a new infection.
  • Immunoglobulin E (IgE): Normally found in small amounts in the blood. There may be higher amounts when the body overreacts to allergens or is fighting an infection from a parasite.

IgE allergies are the type of immune cells that produce anaphylactic type reactions.

Adaptive vs. Innate Immunity

The immune system is divided into two large categories – innate and adaptive. Before we get too far, we need to define a term – antigen. An antigen is something that causes an immune response. An antigen can be simple like grass or pollen or for some, gluten. Or an antigen can be more dangerous like a flu or cold virus.

The innate immune system engages either immediately or within hours of exposure to an antigen. Innate immunity is non-specific to the antigen. For example, skin, chemicals in the blood, and generic immune system cells are are all a part of the innate immune system. The innate immune response activates by chemical properties of the antigen.

The adaptive immune system attacks a specific antigen. When the body is exposed to an antigen, the body processes and recognizes this antigen. Once the body recognizes this antigen, the adaptive immune system creates immune cells specifically designed to attack that antigen. Adaptive immunity also includes “memory” that makes future interactions with a specific antigen more efficient.

Let’s look at an example of interactions with a flu virus regarding the innate and adaptive immune system. To us the innate immune system, one would wash their hands often and cover their coughs to prevent the virus from getting into the body. If one received the flu shot, the body recognizes the flu virus attacking the body. The immune system is primed through adaptive immunity to recognize the virus and remembered how to attack the virus.

Mast cells are a big part of the adaptive immune system. That’s why we had to talk about it today. I knew about this concept, but a quick refresher never hurt anyone.


It is important to understand the types of cells in the immune system and the types of immunity. Mast cells interact with the adaptive immune system to create IgE allergic reactions. Mast cells also interact with T-cells. In case you didn’t know, celiac disease is a T-cell mediated disease. We will also need to talk about cytokines, too.

Finally, I did not do great in biology and never took organic chemistry, so I am learning all of this on the fly. I had not waded into mast cell stuff before because it was a big and complex. So, I am learning along the way. Bear with me because the more I dig the more concepts I have to learn.

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