I’ve had a very difficult week getting my act together to watch any of the Gluten Summit videos, and was unable to make it to my local celiac support group’s dinner tonight due to traffic difficulties (sorry Mary Lynne!), but I was able to get my hands on Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl’s latest manuscript called “The Unfolding Story of Celiac Disease Risk Factors.” If you have Celiac Disease and haven’t heard of Dr. Lebwohl, he is one of the main researchers at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University in New York with Dr. Peter Green. Just this past summer Dr. Lebwohl published a landmark paper (see link) showing an increased risk of lymphoma in untreated celiac disease. If you haven’t read this paper, I recommend reading it and showing it to your family members to convince them that they need to be screened for celiac disease if they’d like to prevent getting cancer.
It is currently known that there are 3 components to developing celiac disease: ingestion of gluten, having one of the celiac genes (HLA DQ2 and/or DQ8 in most cases), and a yet to be determined environmental factor. Researchers are working hard to figure out what the environmental trigger is, as avoiding it may be the key to preventing the development of celiac disease in genetically susceptible individuals. About 40% of the U.S. population carries one of the celiac genes, and as I learned at the International Celiac Disease Symposium in Chicago this fall, Celiac can also develop in people who do not have the 2 main genes (myself included, I am double DQ7 positive).
In his latest paper, Dr. Lebwohl discusses the current theories regarding risk factors for the development of celiac disease that have been well-researched. They include the following:
1. Infant feeding practices. There was an epidemic of celiac disease in Sweden in the 1980s and 1990s which corresponded with a change in feeding practices. Babies during this time period were exposed to large amounts of gluten after they had been weaned from breast milk. The lovely Cristen Pantano wrote a guest post for me about this very topic in October 2013. Thus, the timing of the introduction of gluten during infancy may have an effect on the later development of celiac.
2. Infections, including rotavirus infections in children and campylobacter infections in adults, have been associated with an increased risk of celiac disease.
3. Hygiene hypothesis. Research has shown an increased risk of celiac disease in developed countries (i.e. Finland) than in less developed regions, such as the Russian Karelia region. A decrease in exposure to bacteria and microbes may lead to an increased risk of autoimmune and allergic conditions. Kids are supposed to be dirty to some extent.
4. Infants born via c-section are at higher risk for celiac disease than infants delivered vaginally. This is likely due to a change in the colonization of babies’ intestinal flora. For more on this topic, you can see my post about probiotics from February 2013 (and I’ve also heard through the grapevine that this is being discussed quite a bit during the Gluten Summit).
5. Gastrointestinal tract colonization with H pylori, a bacteria, is associated with a lower risk of celiac disease.
6. Medications associated with a higher risk of celiac include antibiotics (especially multiple doses) and proton pump inhibitors (i.e. Prilosec or Prevacid). I cringe when I think of how many antibiotics and anti-reflux medications I was on during college when I was repeatedly treated for ulcers and acne (in retrospect my symptoms were from untreated celiac disease and I have a feeling that this is the case for many people).
7. Infants whose mothers take iron supplements during pregnancy are at a higher risk of celiac disease than infants whose mothers did not take iron. Excess iron may have an effect on the makeup of the bacterial microbiome and have an influence on the innate immune system. More research into this area is needed before specific recommendations can be made and/or changed in regards to iron supplementation during pregnancy.
Overall, this paper by Dr. Lebwohl is the most comprehensive, up-to-date summary of our current understanding of celiac disease risk factors that I have come across, and every risk factor has research to support its inclusion. I am optimistic that, in the future, as more information becomes available, that we will be able to better identify those at risk for celiac disease and prevent it. Right now the only way to prevent celiac disease from developing is to exclude gluten from a newborn baby’s diet for life. And as we all know, in our gluten-filled world, this is much easier said than done! Perhaps for my great-great grandchildren we’ll have an easier way to prevent it. As my 4 year old daughter reminded me today as I dropped her off at school, “Mommy, you are going to be a grandma soon because you look like you are almost 100 years old!” So, perhaps this will be sooner than later!
Lebwohl, B, Ludvigsson, JF, Green, PHR. The unfolding story of celiac disease risk factors. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology (2013), doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2013.10.031.