Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects about 1 percent of the U.S. population. Diagnosed at any age, this autoimmune disease is life-long once it develops, and the only treatment for it so far is the removal of all traces of gluten from the diet, making prevention and risk reduction of prime importance to healthcare providers and families alike.
Like other autoimmune diseases, celiac disease has both a genetic and environmental component. The genes, identified as HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1, appear to be the genetic predisposition to celiac disease
. However, less than 5 percent of those with this gene have celiac disease, so there is clearly one or more environmental components, or “triggers,” that effectively set off the autoimmune response, causing celiac disease.
Identifying those environmental triggers has been the focus of a great deal of research as scientists scramble to halt the rise of celiac disease. Some have suggested that modern wheat varieties contain more gluten than traditional varieties have in previous decades. The results of several studies, however, show this to not be true. Modern varieties of wheat are simply more pest-resistant and produce higher yields. And, while genetically modified (GMO) wheat has also been implicated in the rise of celiac disease, it’s important to note that GMO wheat has not yet been approved by the FDA and is not commercially grown.
One study in particular indicates that factors in the modern Western lifestyle may be responsible. Researchers looked at the prevalence of celiac disease
using more than 5,500 participants in Finland and a neighboring region in Russia. They found that, while the subjects’ genes and consumption of wheat were very similar, the Russian participants were five times less
likely to have celiac disease than their Finnish counterparts. The researchers concluded that the participants living in this remote part of Russia lived a more rural lifestyle and were therefore exposed to more pathogens and other microorganisms, including many that inhabit the gut.
Other risk factors for celiac disease that scientists have identified include breastfeeding and the infant diet. Researchers found that infants who are exposed to gluten
during the first three months of life or after seven months are five times more likely to develop celiac disease. Research has also shown that breastfeeding while slowly introducing foods containing gluten during that four- to six-month window reduces the chances of developing celiac disease by 48 percent. In fact, when health officials in Sweden encouraged mothers to introduce babies to gluten after weaning, the rate of celiac disease sharply rose to some of the highest levels ever seen, at 3 percent. The reasons behind this are likely three-fold: first, breast milk protects the intestines from harm. It also has a unique suppressive effect on the immune system’s T-cells and binds with the IgA antigen, preventing it from absorbing into the intestines.
Like other autoimmune diseases, celiac disease is impossible to completely prevent. The only thing parents can do to help prevent the onset of celiac in their children is to minimize the risk factors associated with it. Keeping the potential causes of celiac disease in mind, below are some actions that parents can take to help reduce the risk of celiac in their children:
If a lack of exposure to microorganisms plays a role in celiac and other autoimmune diseases, as many recent studies suggest, then a strategy for preventing it may be as simple as encouraging children to spend more time outdoors away from the more sterile indoor environment. Not only will this help young children’s immune systems do their job properly as they expose themselves to microorganisms, playing outside in the sunshine will also boost children’s vitamin D levels.
Breastfeeding for at least six months is strongly advised by the World Health Organization for a number of health reasons, including reducing the risk of celiac disease. While it isn’t possible for every new mom to breastfeed, it is strongly recommended to do so. Those who do use formula, however, need not burden themselves with guilt—the majority of formula-fed babies do not develop celiac disease.
: While not technically a preventative measure, it is important to get screened for celiac disease if any other member of the family gets diagnosed with it. This is especially important for young children, who may suffer from stunted growth and other complications if their condition isn’t identified quickly. By screening for celiac disease early, including the presence of the genes necessary for it to develop, parents can be better informed and can begin acting to reduce the risk and severity of celiac disease.
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