Celiac Disease and Breastfeeding
Celiac disease is a growing problem, with at least 1% of the American population suffering with it. It’s most commonly diagnosed in Caucasian women of European ancestry. Celiac disease damages the small intestine, which prevents it from absorbing nutrients and can lead to a host of other problems. Symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal pain, constipation/diarrhea, fatigue, weight-loss and nutrient deficiencies. It is classified as an autoimmune disorder because the body’s immune system is mistakenly attacking ‘self’ cells – the cells of the intestinal lining – in response to eating what should be a benign molecule – gluten.
Contrary to popular belief, celiac can develop at any point in life supporting the idea that both a genetic predisposition and environmental factors contribute to the onset of disease. There is some early research to indicate that breastfeeding may reduce the incidence of celiac because breast milk contains antibodies against the antigens (attack cells) that develop in celiac.
Are there common antibodies or genetic markers present that cause the predisposition to celiac disease?
People who test positive for the “HLA DQ2/8” antibody are genetically pre-disposed for celiac disease. However, only about 4% develop the disease after their gluten exposure. Furthermore, seven additional candidate genes have been discovered that may be linked to the development of celiac. However, a genetic predisposition does not negate the fact that exposure to gluten is the main causative factors. A genetic link simply implies that some people are less able to tolerate the negative effects that certain plant compounds and toxins have on their intestines.
Does the introduction of solid foods to my infant’s diet affect the development of celiac?
Some findings suggest that giving solid foods to your baby too early may increase the risk of your child developing gluten intolerance and celiac disease along with other food allergies. In the 1970s, after doctors in England recommended against adding cereal to formula and introducing gluten before a baby is four months old, celiac disease incidence declined at significant levels. This evidence suggests that there may be a “window” of time for gluten to be introduced into the diet that reduces the risk of celiac disease. Current recommendations in Europe are to introduce gluten after the age of 4 months, but before the age of 7 months. The recommendation is to gradually give the baby small amounts of gluten at a time while you are still breastfeeding.
What is the connection between celiac disease and breastfeeding?
The direct role of breastfeeding in the reduction of celiac has not yet been definitively proven but, as noted, it is likely related to the multitude of circulating antibodies in the mother’s milk. Antibodies offer protection to the child whose immune system has not yet produced its own antibodies. European studies show evidence that infants who were still breastfeeding when gluten was introduced to their diet reduced their celiac disease risk by 52%. The risk was reduced even more if the infant continued to be nursed after the gluten introduction. These findings suggest that mothers may be able to prevent the development of celiac disease if they breastfeed while introducing gluten.
Does breast milk contain antibodies?
Breast milk contains antibodies against all the antigens the mother’s immune system has met prior to or during pregnancy. With celiac disease, it means that if the mother has circulating antibodies to gliadin, they will appear in the breast milk. If the breastfed baby ingests gliadin through cereal formula (or the mother eats grains and traces of gliadin appear in the milk), the antibodies in the milk block gliadin and it will not cross the intestinal wall and interact with the baby’s immune system. Thus, antibodies in breast milk may be protective in genetically predisposed babies.
Additional questions for your doctor:
- Does my baby need to consume gluten at all?
- What are the risks of feeding my baby a gluten-free diet?
- If I eat consume gluten and lectins while pregnant, would that affect my baby’s health?
This blog post was originally published by AutoimmuneMom.com and first published on Sep 2, 2012.
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