Bacterial infection may protect against celiac disease

Summary: Celiac disease may be on the rise because people’s immune systems are losing the jobs they evolved to perform. The hygiene hypothesis suggests the human body is used to hosting bacteria, and infections protect them from autoimmune disorders.

Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium commonly found in the stomach, may play a role. Its declining prevalence in North America coincides with an increase in celiac disease. To examine this relationship, a team of American and Swedish scientists studied stomach and intestinal tissue samples collected together from 136,000 patients and submitted to an American pathology lab. Stomach tissue was tested for H. pylori while intestinal tissue indicated celiac disease.

Conclusion: H. pylori was significantly more common in people with healthy intestinal tissue (8.8 percent) than in people with celiac disease (4.4 percent). The large study size, including 2,689 celiac disease patients, found the same effect regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status and location within the United States. The study could not show whether the infection occurred first, but people usually acquire H. pylori during the first few years of life. The authors suggest it provides some protection against celiac disease.

Although this study provides no evidence how this might happen, previous research in mice suggests the immune system’s defense against H. pylori prevents asthma and other diseases involving hypersensitivity, so it might also reduce any reaction to gluten. Further research is needed to determine whether the bacterium could be used therapeutically to prevent celiac disease in patients at risk.


[1] “Decreased risk of celiac disease in patients with #Helicobacter pylori #colonization”, Lebwohl B, Blaser MJ, Ludvigsson JF, Green PHR, Rundle A, Sonnenberg A, Genta RM, #American Journal of Epidemiology# (2013) 178(12):1721-1730.

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