Can You Prevent Celiac Disease?

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Can you prevent celiac disease?. Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

If celiac disease runs in your family or if you know that you (or your child) carries the so-called celiac disease gene, you might wonder if there's anything you can do to prevent the condition from developing.

Truthfully, the research in this area is very new (and developing quickly). There may be some steps you can take to lessen the risk of celiac disease in your young child, but there's no proven way to lessen the risk in adults.

Here's what we know — and what we don't know — about preventing celiac disease in children and adults.

Lots of Gluten Tied to Celiac in One Study

Eating lots of gluten-containing food at an early age — before two years old — seems to lead to a higher incidence of celiac disease among children who inherited the celiac disease gene, according to a Swedish study. The children in the study who were more likely to develop celiac ate the equivalent of about two slices of whole wheat bread per day.

However, the researchers also found that it didn't matter when gluten-containing foods first were given to babies, so this may be more a matter of quantity than timing. The authors also noted that parents tend to feed their babies differently in Sweden, so the results of the research will need to be duplicated in the United States to confirm this study's findings.

    There's no research to date that has investigated whether eating a high-gluten diet as an adult can lead to celiac disease. I've heard anecdotally of people developing the condition after lots of exposure to gluten (for example, someone working professionally as an artisan baker), but anecdotes are not evidence (there are plenty of artisan bakers out there who haven't developed celiac, too).

    Antibiotic Use a Possible Risk Factor

    There's also some medical evidence that young children who are prescribed lots of antibiotics are at higher risk for celiac disease.

    In this study, researchers in northeastern Italy searched the medical records of more than 200,000 babies. They found that children who had taken antibiotics during their first year were at a slightly increased risk for celiac disease, and children who had taken antibiotics from the cephalosporin family during their first year had about a 42% higher risk for celiac disease.

    The researchers speculated that the antibiotics may alter the balance of the bacteria that live in the intestines, and might also weaken the barrier in the gut, possibly leading to what's popularly called "leaky gut."

    Other researchers have found that cesarean sections heighten the risk for celiac disease in children. This risk factor also could be linked to changes in the bacteria found in babies' intestines, since babies who are born by c-sections are exposed to different, potentially less beneficial types of bacteria at birth.

    However, it appear that breastfeeding does not appear to help prevent celiac disease (although there are other good reasons to breastfeed your baby).

    In Adults, Triggers and Gluten Play Role

    Although we don't know exactly what causes celiac disease, we do know that it's a combination of genetics, a gluten-containing diet and — possibly — a "trigger." In adults, researchers have explored whether that trigger could be pregnancy or even just plain old stress (in both cases, the answer may be yes).

    But that may not help you much if you're looking to prevent celiac disease — stress is unpredictable (and oftentimes out of your control), and the vast majority of women go through pregnancy without triggering celiac.

    Some people have suggested that cutting back on gluten might help to prevent (or at least postpone) celiac disease. This may seem to make intuitive sense, but there haven't been any studies on it. Others have suggested adopting a gluten-free diet preventively to make sure you never develop celiac, but that's certainly not something that's recommended by physicians.

    Probiotics to Prevent Celiac?

    As I said above, there's evidence that changes in the gut bacteria may predispose infants to celiac disease, and there's some interesting research on the role of the intestinal microbiome in the development of the condition.

    All this leads to the question of whether introducing more beneficial bacteria into your intestines -- perhaps by taking probiotics — might help you to prevent celiac disease. However, while there's some evidence that probiotics may help celiac disease symptoms, there haven't been any studies to date on whether probiotics can help you prevent the condition altogether.

    Unfortunately, there's still a lot we don't know about how celiac disease starts ... which means we really don't know how to prevent it, either.


    Andrén Aronsson C et al. Effects of Gluten Intake on Risk of Celiac Disease: a case-control study on a Swedish birth cohortClinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2015 Oct 7. pii: S1542-3565(15)01332-4.

    Canova C et al. Association of maternal education, early infections, and antibiotic use with celiac disease: a population-based birth cohort study in northeastern Italy. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2014 Jul 1;180(1):76-85.

    Decker E et al. Cesarean delivery is associated with celiac disease but not inflammatory bowel disease in children. Gut Microbes. 2011 Mar-Apr;2(2):91-8.

    de Sousa Morales LF et al. Intestinal microbiota and probiotics in celiac disease. Clinical Microbiology Review. 2014 Jul;27(3):482-9. 

    Namatovu F. The multifactorial etiology of celiac disease explored by combining several national registers. Umeå University Medical Dissertations, 2015.

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