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Jane Anderson

Study Indicates Delaying Gluten Exposure Protects Against Celiac

By March 14, 2012

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Delaying gluten exposure in babies at risk for celiac disease until they're one year old potentially curbs the immune system response mounted against gluten and might delay or prevent the autoimmune condition, according to research from the University of Maryland published today in the online journal PloS ONE.

The study directly challenges previous advice to introduce gluten to babies between four and six months of age. That recommendation, also based on medical research, stated that babies who begin eating gluten at age seven months or later have a slightly higher risk for celiac disease than those who take their first gluten bites at four to six months.

The just-released study, "Proof of concept of microbiome-metabolome analysis and delayed gluten exposure on celiac disease autoimmunity in genetically at-risk infants," also uncovered differences in the composition of intestinal bacteria between infants at high risk for celiac disease who began eating gluten at different times.

Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research and one of the study's two lead authors, says those findings could help researchers identify biomarkers that could predict the appearance of celiac disease.

"With the validation of these biomarkers, we hope to identify the trigger point for the onset of celiac disease and other autoimmune diseases," Dr. Fasano said in a statement. "Then we can investigate ways to prevent the onset of these conditions by adjusting the microbiota of the gut."

Your gut normally contains a large number of different types of bacteria, and the researchers theorized that changes in these bacteria might influence the possibility of a person developing celiac disease.

The study enrolled 34 infants with close relatives who have celiac disease, and who also tested positive for the celiac disease genes. All the babies were breastfed exclusively for at least the first six months.

The researchers then used stool sample analysis to observe changes in the bacterial composition, comparing infants on different diets: Group A had delayed gluten introduction at 12 months of age, while Group B received a gluten supplement starting at six months of age. All infants reverted to an unrestricted diet at 12 months.

One infant from Group B developed celiac disease at 24 months of age, while another infant from Group B developed type 1 diabetes (another autoimmune condition) at 22 months.

The bacterial composition of the intestines -- also known as the 'microbiome' -- didn't mature at a normal rate in the infants who were susceptible to celiac disease, the study concluded. "From the findings, we think that the microbial environment as a whole might play a part in the onset of celiac disease, and possibly in other autoimmune disorders," Dr. Fasano says.

Image Getty Images/David Woolley

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