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Breast-Feeding May Protect Against Celiac Disease

Thu May 9, 2002

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Continuing to breast-feed infants while introducing them to certain foods may cut their risk of developing celiac disease, new study findings suggest.

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with the normal absorption of nutrients from food. It arises from an allergic reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. The problem often goes undetected because many of its symptoms--such as abdominal pain, fatigue and diarrhea--are similar to those seen in a range of other disorders.

Also, some patients with celiac disease have no symptoms. In recent studies, blood tests have identified mild forms of the disease in people who were unaware of any problem.

While the cause of celiac disease remains unclear, lead author Anneli Ivarsson of Umea University in Sweden and colleagues point out that the dietary patterns of infants might influence the body's immune response, resulting in tolerance or intolerance of a particular food.

To investigate, the team of researchers evaluated breast-feeding patterns and the way food was introduced to 627 children with celiac disease and 1,254 healthy kids.

"A major finding of this study was the lower risk of celiac disease in infants who were still being breast-fed than in infants who had discontinued breast-feeding at the time when gluten-containing foods were introduced into the diet," Ivarsson and colleagues write in the May issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

According to the report, the risk of celiac disease was reduced by about 40% in children aged 2 or younger if they were still being breast-fed when dietary gluten was introduced.

"This effect was even more pronounced in infants who continued to be breast-fed after dietary gluten was introduced," the authors report.

Moreover, the risk for celiac disease appeared to be greater when gluten-based foods were introduced into an infant's diet in large amounts, they add.

"It is tempting to speculate that this dietary pattern also reduces the lifetime risk of celiac disease; however, further studies are needed to confirm this notion," Ivarsson's team concludes.

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2002;75:914-921.

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