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Can Probiotics Prevent the Development of Celiac Disease?

Can Probiotics Prevent the Development of Celiac Disease?

Story at-a-glance -

  • The combination of avoiding or eliminating grains (and sugar), along with increased consumption of probiotic foods (or a high-quality supplement) is a powerful combination that may improve the health of people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance and a wide range of other related conditions
  • Your gut microflora play a critical role in the onset of celiac disease; past research has shown probiotics may help heal intestinal barrier function in people with celiac disease, as well as alleviate the severity of the condition by reducing inflammation
  • In a new animal study, researchers revealed that when mice were fed the probiotic strain Saccharomyces boulardii KK1, gluten-induced pathological intestinal changes commonly associated with celiac disease progression began to reverse

By Dr. Mercola

Probiotics, or "friendly bacteria," are essential in establishing a healthy gut flora, and this may be a crucial factor both in helping to prevent celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects at least 3 million Americans,i as well as in reducing adverse (though seldom diagnosed) symptoms associated with intolerance to gluten-containing grains, in many more. 

If you have celiac disease, consuming gluten (a gluey type of protein found in wheat, rye and barley) causes your immune system to mistakenly attack your small intestine, which inhibits the absorption of nutrients.

This is a very serious condition that requires the complete and lifelong elimination of all gluten-containing foods from your diet.

Left untreated, it can lead to a number of health complications and diseases, including other autoimmune disorders, osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions and even cancer.

Unfortunately, the condition is often missed by physicians, as symptoms may either be completely absent, or those that do occur, such as weight loss, anemia, diarrhea or bloating, may be attributed to other conditions.

In fact, it takes an average of four years for someone with symptoms of celiac disease to be correctly diagnosed in the United States, and during this time the risk of serious complications rises significantly.

Can Celiac Disease be Prevented with Probiotics?

Once celiac disease develops, the only known way to prevent ongoing damage to your small intestine is by following a strict gluten-free diet. Prevention would be a far better option, but it's conventionally been said that there is no way to prevent celiac disease from occurring.

Now researchers may have uncovered a promising strategy that, for the first time, appears to cause celiac disease progression to reverse, and that strategy is consuming probiotics.

Using a mouse model for celiac disease to investigate the influence of probiotics, taken orally, on disease development, researchers revealed that when mice were fed the probiotic strain Saccharomyces boulardii KK1, the pathological changes associated with celiac disease progression began to reverse. Researchers stated in the journal Laboratory Investigation:

"The selected probiotic treatment reversing disease development will allow the study of the role of probiotics as a new therapeutic approach of CD [celiac disease]."

It's already known that your gut microflora play a critical role at the onset of celiac disease. And past research has shown probiotics may help heal intestinal barrier function in people with celiac disease,ii as well as alleviate the severity of the condition by influencing inflammation to varying degrees.iii It is also possible that the millions of people who suffer from "out of intestine" varieties of celiac disease or wheat intolerance, which can express itself in over 125 health conditions,iv may benefit from supporting their microflora with a regular supply of friendly bacteria. 

Celiac Disease is an Inflammatory Disorder

This is an important point, because the makeup of your gut microflora, as well as probiotics, are known to influence systemic inflammation. Your body contains about 100 trillion bacteria -- more than 10 times the number of cells you have in your entire body. It's now quite clear that the type and quantity of micro-organisms in your gut interact with your body in ways that can either prevent or encourage the development of many diseases, including potentially celiac disease. The ideal ratio between the bacteria in your gut is 85 percent "good" and 15 percent "bad" – and even the "unfriendly" bacteria may serve an important role in your body when their numbers are within a safe range.

Maintaining this optimal ratio is essential for good health, as probiotics (healthy bacteria) have over 30 beneficial pharmacological actions that we know of, including down-regulating interleukin-6, a cytokine involved in chronic inflammation. By decreasing serum CRP (C-reactive protein) levels (which rise with inflammation and/or infection), and reducing the bacteria-induced production of proinflammatory cytokines, while simultaneously up-regulating the expression of anti-inflammatory cytokines, probiotics can offer significant benefits against celiac disease and other inflammatory diseases.

Further research presented at the 2011 American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) annual meeting, by researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland, showed that people with inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis, chronic fatigue syndrome or psoriasis who took the probiotic bacteria Bifidobacterium infantis for eight weeks had lower levels of inflammation than those taking a placebo. The simple strategy appeared to lower levels of inflammation among a wide variety of conditions.

Probiotics are so crucial to your health that researchers have compared them to "a newly recognized organ," and have even suggested we consider ourselves a type of "meta-organism" -- in acknowledgment of the fact that we cannot be whole and healthy without the participation of a vast array of friendly bacterial species and strains.

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What are the Best Sources of Probiotics for People with Celiac Disease?

This is the same for everyone: traditionally fermented foods. Fermented food helps you to both "reseed" your body with good bacteria, as well as provide the ideal 'nourishing matrix' that the bacteria depend on to flourish in their transit through your gut, and include tasty options such as:

  • Lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner)
  • Fermented milk, such as kefir (a quart of unpasteurized kefir has far more active bacteria than you can possibly purchase in any probiotic supplement)
  • Various pickled fermentations of cabbage, sauerkraut, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots
  • Natto (fermented soy)

When choosing fermented foods, steer clear of pasteurized versions, as pasteurization will destroy nearly all of the naturally occurring probiotics. This includes most of the "probiotic" yogurts you find in every grocery store these days; since they're pasteurized, they will be associated with all of the problems of pasteurized milk products and they typically contain added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring, or artificial sweeteners, all of which will only worsen your health.

While I do not generally advocate taking many supplements, a high-quality probiotic is an exception, especially if you do not consume traditionally fermented foods on a regular basis or you suffer from a condition like celiac disease. If you do not regularly consume the traditionally fermented foods above, a high-quality probiotic supplement will provide similar benefits.

It must be mentioned that poor diet is a potent enemy to healthy gut bacteria, as eating sugar actually nourishes the bad or pathogenic bacteria yeast and fungi in your gut (which may actually do more harm than elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance). This is counterproductive and will likely serve to worsen your health. One of the major side benefits of eating a healthy diet like the one described in my nutrition plan is that it helps the beneficial gut bacteria flourish, which results in the real "magic" of restoring your health.

Those with celiac disease must avoid gluten to manage the condition, but I actually recommend that everyone following my beginner nutrition plan eliminate all gluten from their diets because, in my experience, there is an epidemic of people with hidden intolerance to wheat products and gluten who would benefit from avoiding it entirely as well.

Wheat is the most important gluten-containing grain to avoid; it alone contains the highly toxic gliadin molecule.

When gluten is broken down in the gut and gliadin is released, it is free to bind to gastrointestinal cells in your body, increasing both permeability and inflammation in the gut. If you are especially sensitive, your body will make antibodies to gliadin and attack the cells that have become complexed with it, treating those cells much in the same way that they would if they were infected. This immune response damages surrounding tissue and has the potential to set off, or exacerbate, MANY other health problems throughout your body, which is why gluten can have such a devastating effect on your overall health.

Taking Probiotics Will Not Make Up for Eating Grains

If you suffer from any inflammatory condition -- be it celiac disease, other autoimmune disorders, or heart disease, just to name a few -- it would be wise to avoid grains. Probiotics may help your body recover and heal, but they cannot be used as a way to maintain a grain-based diet without suffering ill effects.

Grains (and sugars) are highly pro-inflammatory, and while probiotics are anti-inflammatory, they cannot cancel out the detrimental effects of a diet high in starchy carbs. It is somewhat like driving a car with your foot on the brakes and the gas pedal at the same time. Clearly this is not a very effective way to run your vehicle. Similarly sugars and grains will feed the pathogenic bacteria, which virtually eliminates any benefit from the added probiotics.

The good news is, the combination of avoiding or eliminating grains and sugar, along with increased consumption of probiotic foods (or a high-quality supplement) is a powerful combination that could bring new hope and increased health for millions of people suffering from celiac disease, wheat intolerance and other autoimmune disorders, as well as possibly help prevent the condition from occurring.