In this article, I discuss celiac disease in babies and if babies are at risk for the autoimmune condition. This post should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor and/or health care provider. Please read my disclosures and disclaimers.
Is the amount of gluten intake during the first five years of life associated with the risk of celiac disease in at-risk children? Researchers say it just might be.
Researchers found that children who ate higher amounts of gluten during the first five years of their lives had an increased risk for developing celiac disease. These results were published in the Journal of American Medicine on August 13, 2019.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, a grain found primarily in wheat, barley and rye, their immune system launches an attack of the healthy tissue of the small intestine. The small intestine is essential for nutrient distribution and absorption.
Researchers found that children who consumed a higher intake of gluten had a 6.1 percent increased risk of developing celiac disease autoimmunity (defined as positive tissue transglutaminase autoantibodies) and a 7.2 percent increased risk of developing celiac disease per each additional gram of gluten consumed per day.
Those who went on to develop celiac disease had persistently high tissue transglutaminase autoantibody levels. Researchers confirmed their celiac disease diagnoses by intestinal biopsy.
Between 2004 and 2010, researchers enrolled 8,676 newborns from six clinical centers in Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the United States. All study participants carried HLA antigen genotypes (DQ2 or DQ8) and were considered “predisposed” to celiac disease.
Researchers screened each child annually for celiac disease with tissue transglutaminase autoantibodies starting at the age of two. They measured gluten intake based on three-day food records collected at ages six, nine, and 12 months, and then biannually thereafter until the age of five years.
Eighteen percent (1,216) of the children developed celiac disease autoimmunity and 49 percent (447) of the children developed celiac disease.
Most of the diagnoses came between the ages of two and three, and daily gluten intake was associated with higher risk of celiac disease autoimmunity for every additional gram of gluten consumed. Read the full study.
What Causes Celiac Disease?
Researchers say that, in order for celiac disease to be present in the human body, three factors must exist.
First, someone must be genetically predisposed to celiac disease by carrying either HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes. About one-third of the U.S. population carry one of these genes, however, only about five percent eventually go on to develop the disease.
You can find out if you carry one of the two celiac disease through genetic testing, which I discuss in detail in this article.
Second, someone must be eating gluten in order to get celiac disease or have an accurate celiac disease test.
Third, someone must experience some sort of intestinal permeability – or leaky gut – issue. Typically gluten will damage the gut, causing holes in the lining of the small intestine that allow undigested food particles to “leak” into the bloodstream and cause the immune system to attack these perceived pathogens.
Now, for the first time, researchers have a new understanding of what might cause celiac disease … and how early consumption of the protein (before the age of five) might impact someone’s risk of developing the disease.
What this Means for You?
If your child is predisposed to celiac disease, which means he or she carries one of the HLA genes (or he or she has a first degree relative with celiac disease), should you lay off the gluten?
I cannot say for sure because (a) I’m not a doctor, and (b) this research is so new.
However, if your child is predisposed to celiac disease, it certainly couldn’t hurt to limit his or her gluten consumption. Unfortunately, there is no known safe limit for gluten consumption, and more research is needed to understand if limiting gluten consumption in children, or at any age, can stave of celiac disease.
What It Means for Me
I was diagnosed with celiac disease when I was 34 years old. My children were six and four at the time.
Since then, they have followed a low-gluten diet. They don’t eat gluten in the house (we have a gluten-free household), but they eat gluten when we go out to eat. (Neither child has celiac disease.)
I do not know if my children carry the HLA genes (it’s likely they do, but I do not know for sure), but they do have a first-degree relative with celiac disease (me), so they are at high-risk for the disease.
My hope is that their low-gluten lifestyle during their childhood will serve them well. My hope is that they won’t go on to develop full-on celiac disease. Hope, however, is not sound science, nor can I predict the future. Only time will tell.