Celiac disease is on the rise, quadrupling in the United States over the last 50 years. Breastfeeding, too, is on the rise, tripling here during this same time period.
Interestingly, new reports boast that breast milk may prevent celiac disease. So how could this be true? In this era of breast-is-best, sounds like we have some more potentially misleading cheerleading about breast milk on our hands.
Perhaps my own experience as a new mother makes me suspicious. I am keenly aware of the pressure put upon mothers to breastfeed, and I become wary when I read about studies touting the medical benefits of breast milk. More often than not the main messages go from "breastfeeding might prevent" to "you are putting your baby at risk if you do not breastfeed."
This is not to say that breast milk does not have medical benefits. The link between celiac disease and breast milk actually may be one of the most believable. Breast milk has unique properties that help stabilize a newborn's intestinal tract. The healthy microbial balance can boost newborns' delicate immune systems and ward off allergies -- a big factor in celiac disease, which is an intolerance to gluten.
Last Sunday, The New York Times reported that scientists are mystified by the rapid increase of celiac disease in the United States. While scientists are investigating multiple explanations, a growing number are turning to breast milk as the preventative answer.
Curious to learn more, I did some digging.
The connection between celiac disease and breast milk goes back to an epidemic that struck children in Sweden 30 years ago. Just before the increase, infant-feeding guidelines changed and instructed parents to delay introducing gluten in their babies' diets until they were six months old. During the outbreak, Swedish scientists found that the babies who continued to breastfeed after their exposure to gluten fared better. Because they didn't have any other answers, doctors urged mothers to keep breastfeeding. Partly as a result of the findings in Sweden, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that infants consume gluten while still breastfeeding.
Yet it is not clear just how much glory breastfeeding can claim in the fight against celiac disease. The Canadian Celiac Association cautions against stating that breastfeeding will prevent the disease. Numerous inconclusive studies could not determine if breastfeeding truly prevented the disease or just delayed its onset, according to an article on their website. The bottom line: more data is needed. And scientists are actively working to gather it.
So far the most recent studies indicate that the combination of introducing your baby to solids with gluten in between four and six months of age -- as opposed to delaying an introduction to gluten -- combined with breast milk may be the best formula. But again, while the promise is there, the studies conclude that the results are inconclusive and more evidence is needed.
If we all did a little digging -- just a little bit -- into the often-cited benefits of breast milk -- the prevention of obesity, diabetes and asthma -- we would find that the studies supporting these claims often leave something to be desired. In fact, a number of studies cannot conclude that breast milk prevents obesity or diabetes or asthma, but you never hear much about those, do you?
To their credit, The New York Times acknowledges that the celiac disease studies have many caveats -- namely small sample sizes. More commonly, breast-is-best articles fail to point out the weaknesses in scientific studies. And if they do, the acknowledgment is usually deeply buried in the text.
Scientists should continue to research the link between celiac disease and breast milk. I would love to see more concrete answers that can help put a stop to the rise in celiac disease, especially because one of my closest friends is gluten intolerant.
I only hope that more parents will question these scientific studies to understand the whole truth and not just automatically add another potentially misleading banner to the breast-is-best mantra.