Celiac Disease affects 1 percent of the population, or about 1 in 135 people, and is currently on the rise. Eating gluten causes inflammation and damage to the lining of the small intestine. Children and adults suffering from celiac disease experience intestinal discomfort—such as gas, bloating, vomiting and constipation—as a result of eating gluten. The most commonly used method to treat celiac disease safely and effectively is the total elimination of gluten from the diet.
The Difficulties of Eating Gluten Free
Although eating gluten free is the best option for treating celiac disease, it is often very difficult for children and adults suffering from the condition to stick to such a strict diet. Studies have shown that lapses in dietary restrictions are common; eating gluten free can be costly. Gluten is hidden in a large number of foods, and/or gluten free options are not readily available.
As a result, new treatments for celiac disease are being explored to help sufferers avoid gastrointestinal distress if they eat gluten. One such possible treatment is the use of probiotics. The hope is that probiotic use will do a number of things to reduce intestinal discomfort:
- Prevent gluten from entering the mucus membrane in the intestine
- Decrease the immune response in the presence of gluten
- Reduce gluten exposure to sufferers by either binding or degrading gluten while inside the intestine
What Are Probiotics and What Do They Do?
Probiotics are live microorganisms, most commonly bacteria or yeast, which are introduced into the body to benefit health. The most common probiotic bacteria come from two groups: Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. They are similar to, or the same as, bacteria already found in the body, specifically in the gut. The bacteria are considered “good” and are necessary for effective digestion and health. Probiotic use generally helps:
- Boost the immune system
- Prevent infection or harmful bacteria from attaching to the gut lining and growing there
- Inhibit or destroy toxins that can make you sick
- Produce vitamins necessary for metabolizing food, maintaining healthy skin and nervous system
However, probiotics generally are used to support digestive health. Probiotics also effectively treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and a host of other conditions that can cause diarrhea due to infections, antibiotic use or travel.
One theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, suggests that the use or over use of antiseptics and antibacterial medications and soaps, has created an imbalance in “good” and “bad” bacteria in our bodies. Thus, probiotics, “good” bacteria, must be reintroduced in order to restore the proper balance of “good” versus “bad” bacteria.
Using probiotics as a treatment for general intestinal health, as well as IBS and IBD, has been generally successful. In one probiotics study, IBS patients showed a greater reduction in abdominal pain and discomfort, bloating and bowel movement.
Can It Work for Celiac Disease?
Studies show that children suffering from celiac disease do not have enough “good” bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium, naturally occurring in their intestinal tract. Since probiotic use has successfully treated other gastrointestinal conditions cause by bacterial imbalance, the hope is it could also treat celiac disease.
Some probiotics effectively treat or address celiac disease by digesting or altering gluten. And one commercially available probiotic, VSL#3, reduces gluten toxicity when used during fermentation. According to researchers, utilizing a special fermentation process that uses certain bacteria to ferment the wheat gluten makes those “baked wheat products … safe for people with celiac disease.” But these findings are often limited.
Current studies looking at whether probiotics effectively treat celiac disease are encouraging. One such study evaluated whether the introduction of a certain strain of Bifidobacterium in active celiac patients still eating gluten products, reduced or eliminated intestinal damage or symptoms. While results showed an improvement in symptoms and blood antibody levels, the study is limited by its small sample size, length of treatment and dosage of probiotics. More studies are needed using larger sample sizes, and using different dosages to show whether increased dosage results in increased benefit.
Although the use of probiotics to effectively treat celiac disease is promising, the only proven method to eliminate symptoms is to eat gluten free. In the meantime, probiotic use may help reduce discomfort when food containing gluten is unintentionally ingested.