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Jane Anderson

Can The Gluten-Free Diet Help Treat Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis?

By February 6, 2013

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Did the gluten-free diet cure a little boy with severe juvenile idiopathic arthritis (or at least help put his disease into remission)?





That's the question explored in a New York Times article that's been on the newspaper's top 10 list all week. In "The Boy With a Thorn in His Joints," Susannah Meadows tells the story of her son Shepherd, who was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis when he was three.

Idiopathic, by the way, means "stemming from an unknown cause."

Now five, Shepherd has been largely symptom-free since six weeks after starting the gluten-free diet. His only flare-ups have come following courses of antibiotics or inadvertent gluten ingestion.

Shepherd tested negative for celiac disease and he was taking a potent drug for his arthritis when it went into remission, but his parents believe the diet, plus omega-3 supplements, stopped the disease's rapid progression.

Read Shepherd's story here.

Now, we've come a fair distance from just a few years ago, when almost every conventional medical professional (and quite a few celiacs, too) denied the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

But this story (and others like it) show that the gluten-free diet is not a fad without benefit for people who do not have celiac disease. Sure, celiac disease is linked to joint pain ... but plenty of people with "just" gluten sensitivity report joint pain, too. It may not always be related (lots of people have joint pain), but it's pretty clear it's related in some cases.

In celiac disease, antibodies prompted by gluten ingestion attack the small intestine. In gluten ataxia, antibodies attack the brain. In dermatitis herpetiformis, antibodies attack the skin. I don't think it's a far stretch to think that in some people, antibodies prompted by gluten ingestion might attack the joints (or other body parts).

In fact, an article in The Atlantic just this week described a couple who decided to try the gluten-free diet with their daughter (just diagnosed with type 1 diabetes but with a negative test for celiac) in an effort to stop some of the damage to her pancreas. They don't have any results yet, but they believe it's worth trying (and as a bonus, it might also help the little girl's father, who has psoriasis).

We obviously need more research on all of this. But I'm incredibly encouraged by two things: hints of (very) positive effects of the gluten-free diet in a few anecdotal cases involving non-celiacs, and the acceptance by some in the medical community that the diet might help, even if testing for celiac disease is negative.

Keep up with the latest in the celiac disease/gluten sensitivity world -- sign up for my newsletter, connect with me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter - @AboutCeliac.

Photo Getty Images/Peter Dazeley

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