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Celiac Disease Linked to Infections, Breastfeeding

Celiac Disease Linked to Infections, Breastfeeding

The exact cause of celiac disease is not known, and for parents and clinicians alike, this continues to be a source of frustration. Now new research indicates that celiac disease may be linked to the number of infections a child experiences, and that breastfeeding may play an important role.

What are we learning about celiac disease?

Celiac disease, which is also known as celiac sprue or gluten sensitive enteropathy, affects approximately one out of 133 people in the United States, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Since the mid-1970s, when one in 501 people had blood markers for the disease, the rate of celiac disease has doubled every 15 years in the United States.

Gluten is a broad term for specific proteins that are found in popular cereal grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, and wheat and its derivatives are especially plentiful in many processed foods. Therefore, living gluten-free is a challenge for people with the disease.

Individuals with celiac react to gluten with an autoimmune reaction that involves damage to the hair-like structures (villi) in the small intestine. Once the villi are damaged, individuals are unable to effectively absorb essential nutrients. If celiac disease is not treated, damage to the small intestine can become life-threatening.

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New celiac disease study

Investigators in Sweden conducted a controlled study in which they compared the health histories of children who had been diagnosed with celiac disease with children without the disease. The final analyses included 373 children with celiac and 581 disease-free controls.

Here’s a review of what the investigators discovered:

  • Children who had three or more infections (as reported by their parents) had a 50 percent increased risk of celiac disease. Infections could include common cold, urinary tract infections, gastroenteritis, pneumonia, ear infections, and fever, among others.
  • Children who experienced gastroenteritis had an 80 percent increased risk of developing celiac disease
  • The greatest risk of celiac was seen in children who had experienced several infections before they were six months old and who also had consumed a greater amount of gluten. The impact was most evident in children who were no longer being breastfed before gluten was introduced to their diet
  • Breastfeeding at the same time gluten was introduced to the diet was associated with a decreased risk of celiac disease

This latest study contributes significant information to the growing literature on celiac disease. According to the study’s head researcher, Dr. Anna Myleus, “our results highlight the importance of breastfeeding in reducing risk of celiac disease, especially for an infant who has frequent infections.”

Celiac Disease Foundation
Myleus A et al. Early infections are associated with increased risk for celiac disease: an incident case-referent study. BMC Pediatrics 2012; 12:194

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