BY: EMILY GERTZ
It’s a question that experts have struggled to answer: What triggers the onset of celiac disease—a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine, and leaves the body unable to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. The illness affects around 1% of Americans, and while researchers know that genes play a role in celiac disease, they haven’t been able to explain why only some of those with genetic susceptibilities develop a gluten intolerance—until now.
A new study out of Sweden suggests that developing celiac disease may depend on how many infections an individual suffered as an infant.
The study also found a “synergistic effect” between early-life infections and gluten consumption: Infants who endured three or more infections in their first six months, but were still breastfeeding when they initially ate foods containing wheat, barley, or rye flour, had a reduced celiac disease risk. However, infants with the same infection history, but who had been weaned prior to consuming gluten, had a higher risk for the disease.
And because the rate of infections increases in the winter, researchers suggest that weaning an infant off breast milk during the colder season might also up their risk.
More from Prevention: The Problem With Giving Up Gluten
The findings will be helpful in figuring out why some of those with genetic susceptibilities to celiac disease (around 30% of us) go on to develop the illness, says Dascha Weir, MD, the Associate Director of the Celiac Disease Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s another piece of evidence in a growing body of literature that supports the idea that early infections, seasonal factors, breastfeeding, and infant feeding practices, are all involved in celiac disease,” she says.
Although cautious about drawing direct conclusions between Swedish and American children, Dr. Weir notes that other studies have shown a protective effect from breastfeeding, and this study tends to support that finding. The finding also highlights the importance of trying to reduce number of infections children are exposed to earlier in life, she says.
Of course, the research also indicates that it’s too late for adults to address this potential risk factor for celiac disease. The best course of action, given what we know about the illness, is to seek diagnosis if you suspect you’re suffering. Symptoms are diverse, but can include chronic diarrhea, abdominal bloating and pain, weight loss, and especially foul-smelling stool.
Unfortunately, there’s no treatment for celiac disease, and patients need to avoid consuming gluten if they want to stay symptom-free. The good news? As more Americans become aware of celiac disease, there’s been a boom in gluten-free food products and recipes. (In fact, we’ve got some Easy Gluten-Free Recipes of our own.)
CHECK OUR RECIPE SECTION FOR RECIPES FOR GLUTEN FREE MEALS!