Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive condition in which the body’s immune system damages the villi (fingerlike projections) of the small intestine in response to the presence of gluten, found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. This intestinal damage prevents the absorption of key nutrients important to health, eventually leading to malnourishment in untreated individuals.

One in every 133 people in the United States has celiac disease, significantly more common than it was just a few generations ago. There are a number of factors thought to increase susceptibility to celiac disease. One factor is the extensive hybridization of wheat over the years. One celiac researcher at the Mayo Clinic, Joseph Murray, MD, stated, “We have no idea what effect these changes may have on the immune system.”

Another possible contributing factor was recently investigated in a study published in the journal BMC Pediatrics. Swedish scientists found that infants who had repeated infections early in life (greater than three infections before six months of age) were at increased risk of later developing celiac disease, regardless of the type of infections.

Further, the researchers stated, “We found a synergistic effect between early infections and daily amount of gluten intake, more pronounced among infants for whom breastfeeding had been discontinued prior to gluten introduction. . . This synergistic effect substantiates the importance of breastfeeding with respect to celiac disease risk, especially in a setting with high infectious load.”

Simply stated, breastfeeding likely helps protect against the development of celiac disease, especially in infants with repeated infections before six months of age. One particular paper published in 2007 concluded, “Based on current evidence, it appears reasonable to recommend that gluten be introduced in small amounts in the diet between 4 and 6 months, while the infant is breastfed, and that breastfeeding is continued for at least a further 2–3 months.”

The researchers acknowledge the role the gut microbiota play, suggesting gut imbalance as a possible explanation for the findings of the study. Breastfeeding is a major factor in the colonization of a healthy balance of gut bacteria, which greatly affect immune function. Differences have been found in the gut microbiota composition of people with celiac disease when compared to those without it, so it’s a likely explanation.

As more studies emerge, I’ll keep you posted.