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Keeping Your Infant Healthy Could Prevent Celiac Disease

Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Spring 2013 Issue

Image: CC--Jamie Beverly 05/25/2017 - No parent likes to see their child ill. This is most especially true of a newborn. The baby feels sick, perhaps has a fever, and often all they do is cry, look miserable and no one gets any sleep. So while we can all agree that it's no fun, could keeping your baby healthy actually prevent a lifetime of celiac disease?

The answer is quite possibly 'yes' based on a recent study published in BioMed Central Pediatrics. The title of the study is: "Early infections are associated with increased risk for celiac disease: an incident case-referent study". [A case referent study is simply one where people with the disease to be studied are identified and compared to people in a control group who do not have that disease but are similar in other respects.]

Specifically, the authors concentrated on the 'epidemic' of celiac disease present in Swedish children under two. Their goal was to discover any potential risk or protectant factors that could influence the expression of celiac disease.

Nine hundred and forty five children participated in this study, 373 of whom had celiac disease, with the remainder making up the control group. All of those with the disease were diagnosed with it prior to their second birthday.

The scientists discovered that if a child had 3 or more infections, regardless of type, during the first 6 months of life, their risk for contracting celiac disease was significantly increased. This risk remained stable after adjusting for variances in infants' feeding and socioeconomic status.

Additionally, the risk of celiac disease was further increased if, in addition to the infections, the infants were introduced to gluten in large amounts, compared to small or medium amounts, after breastfeeding was discontinued. The authors concluded that there was actually a synergistic effect between early infections and daily gluten intake. That effect was more pronounced when the infants who were ingesting gluten, did so after breastfeeding was discontinued.

So what is our take-away from this study? As a parent of a newborn, one certainly can control whether the infant is breastfed, and the benefits of doing so compared to any available formula seem irrefutable. Therefore, even if a mother is having some trouble nursing or with her milk production, it is well worth the effort to overcome whatever obstacles are present so her infant receives the benefits of nursing for at least 6 months. Personally I encourage a year, but 6 months would be the absolute minimum.

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Controlling whether or not your child becomes ill is certainly more difficult than ensuring he or she is breastfed, but I would like to share an interesting correlation that we see here at the clinic. Breastfed babies seem, on the whole, to be much healthier than formula fed babies. There is certainly considerable support in the research to support our clinical experience. You may have more control than you would imagine, simply by ensuring that your infant is nursed for as long as possible.

The only further dietary recommendation I would suggest is that the infant's mother get checked for gluten intolerance during pregnancy or as soon as possible, and if she has any genetic markers for either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, she should avoid all gluten (and dairy products) during the nursing months – both have been shown to lower the immune system.

Finally, from a lifestyle viewpoint, it would perhaps be prudent to make the first 6 months or so of life as stress-free as possible. I know that some infants gain a passport and international travel experience well before their first birthday due to relatives in foreign lands or from out of state. While all families are excited to greet a new infant into the family, consider having the infant stay at home while others make the journey to meet him or her. This might very well prove to have long-term benefits for the child's health.

I hope that you found this helpful. Unfortunately, celiac disease, much like so many other autoimmune diseases we are trying to avoid, continues to increase in frequency. Anything we can do to reduce the numbers of people suffering is well worth it.

If you have any questions, comments, or would like to improve your health. Please contact me – call 408-733-0400.

We are here to help!


  • BioMed Central Pediatrics. 2012 Dec 19;12(1):194. Early infections are associated with increased risk for celiac disease: an incident case-referent study. Myléus A, et al. welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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2 Responses:

Pam Newbury
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said this on
29 May 2017 11:50:14 AM PDT
The study's conclusion, "having repeated infectious episodes early in life increases the risk for later celiac disease", is NOT the same as saying that preventing infections in the first six months can prevent CD. An association between infections and CD does not prove causality. I suspect it is far more likely that the study results indicate that the infants who had several early infections had them because they already were starting to develop CD. This is borne out by the study's note about the synergistic effects of infants being introduced to dietary gluten in large amounts and cessation of breastfeeding. Add it up: large amounts of gluten fed to a baby plus several "infectious episodes" equals a baby with CD who is sick because their immune system is compromised by being fed gluten. That said, I agree with the recommendations to avoid stressing the baby, exclusive breastfeeding for at least a year, and avoiding travel. I also agree that the mother of a child who has a parent or close relative with CD should not eat gluten while nursing. Additionally, when gluten is introduced to the child's diet, parents should be observant to any changes in the infant's health, including any increase in "infectious episodes." I disagree strongly with the author's conclusion that preventing infections can prevent CD. (Note: I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. I'm basing my conclusions on my own personal observations of my two children with CD, my 27 years of experience with CD in my family, and my understanding of association and causality in medical research.)

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said this on
07 Aug 2017 2:04:50 PM PDT
No, I don't think this is true as you cannot develop celiac disease until you have had gluten introduced into the diet. This typically occurs at or around the age of 6 months, and so infections prior to this age could not occur due to starting to develop CD. This is one of the reasons that breast feeding is thought to be protective, as it has also been shown to decrease the incidence of infections during the early infancy period. My issue with the article is saying that nursing moms should be "screened for gluten intolerance" and if they have any genetic markers for it they should avoid gluten and dairy. This is not supported by any evidence. There are no markers for gluten intolerance outside of those for celiac disease, meaning we cannot screen for a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Furthermore, if you do carry one of the genetic markers for celiac, as 30-40% of the population does, this does not mean you will definitely go on to develop celiac, which only 1% of the population does. There is therefore no need to avoid gluten or dairy (I'm not sure why this got thrown in there), and there is no data to say that either of these lowers your immune system.

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