Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that damages the lining of the small intestine so that nutrients are not properly absorbed. It can also cause mild to severe abdominal pain and discomfort, a range of health problems.
While a person can be sensitive or allergic to gluten, they may not have full blown celiac disease. A person who is sensitive to gluten may get abdominal bloating and pain that are relived when gluten is eliminated from the diet. However, in those with celiac disease, the gluten eaten in wheat, rye or barley triggers a defensive reaction in the immune system, causing it to damage the lining of the small intestine.
The immune system destroys the tiny protrusions (called villi) that line the small intestine.
Without these villi, nutrients cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream, and the body becomes malnourished, even though the person may be eating enough good quality food. A person whose villi have been damaged will probably have trouble digesting milk foods as well, so it is not unusual for those with celiac disease to also be lactose intolerant.
Many researchers suspect that celiac disease is much more prevalent in children than was previously realized. It runs in families, so children whose parents have celiac disease are at high risk of developing it.
Symptoms and signs in children
The effects of celiac disease on children are of great concern, yet the disease is not always easy to diagnose. For one thing, although children of celiac mothers are often small, even in the womb, a child may not show symptoms of the disease, or they may only show up later in life, perhaps only beginning when the child is under stress, for instance, after a viral infection or surgery, or at a time of great emotional distress.
Furthermore, symptoms do not only occur in the digestive system, and can easily be misdiagnosed. For example, one child might have frequent diarrhea and show signs of abdominal pain, while another child just seems particularly irritable. In fact, irritability is one of the most common symptoms in children.
Typical symptoms of celiac disease to look for in children are:
- failure to thrive
- stunted growth
- low weight
- loss of muscle, and
Small children with celiac disease may have diarrhea (including bloody diarrhea), abdominal pain and nausea. They may develop mouth ulcers, skin rashes, anemia, and have a distended tummy. They may be withdrawn, clingy or irritable; have poor appetite, and remain small and thin. In older children, celiac disease may delay puberty and also cause hair loss.
Like adults, affected children can also develop osteoporosis or autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Children with Type 1 diabetes are at higher risk of celiac disease, and research indicates that up to 10 percent of children with Down syndrome also have it. The nature of the relationship between these disorders is not yet understood, and could be partly due to genetics.
We do know that at least 1 in 10 children of celiac parents will develop the disease, but aside from genetic factors, research suggests that the infant’s diet influences the development of celiac disease.
Symptoms have been found to occur later, and to be less severe in breastfed children, especially those who breastfed for longer. According to the National digestive diseases information clearinghouse (NDDIC), “Some studies have shown…that the longer a person was breastfed, the later the symptoms of celiac disease appear and the more uncommon the symptoms”.
It is widely suspected that gluten can actually damage the infant’s immature digestive system. Later introduction of foods containing wheat, rye or barley (and possibly oats, because they are often contaminated with wheat) until at least until 4 months of age when the infant’s digestive system is more developed seems to delay and reduce the development of celiac disease in children, as does eating less gluten. Children introduced to wheat, barley or rye before or at 3 months were found to be 5 times as likely to develop the celiac disease than children introduced to those foods after 4 to 6 months.
It can also be helpful to delay the child’s introduction to dairy, which can also damage the immature digestive system, thereby increasing the risk that the child will become gluten intolerant, if not celiac.
Earlier, I mentioned another contributing factor to the development of celiac disease: stress. Both physiological and psychological trauma or severe stress have been known to trigger the onset of celiac disease in children or adults. Infections, surgery, prolonged illness or severe emotional stress overtax the immune system. A stressed immune system can overreact to the gluten in the lining of the small intestine, resulting in celiac disease.
What to do for your Celiac child
The only known solution for celiac disease is total avoidance of gluten to allow the digestive system to heal. Non-celiac cases of simple sensitivity or allergy to gluten can often be successfully treated with various desensitization remedies and holistic therapies such as the BioFAST Allergy Free System, but even then, gluten must be eliminated from the diet until treatment is completed.
Many parents are alarmed when told they must eliminate gluten from their child’s diet, but really, it is not as difficult as it may first seem. It is my experience that most of us eat far too much wheat anyway, causing undue stress on the body and clogging the system.
I generally recommend a diet higher in vegetables, fruits, high quality protein, and only moderate amounts of non-wheat whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, and oats. Millet, amaranth and buckwheat are also free of gluten.
A gluten-free diet that is also high in vegetables, especially lots of raw vegetables, will not only eliminate the symptoms of celiac disease and allow the digestive system to heal; it also creates the right internal acid-alkaline balance for optimal health. Plus, patients repeatedly report that they have more energy and feel lighter without gluten…or much dairy, for that matter.
It is advisable to eliminate or reduce dairy to reduce stress on the gut until it has been allowed to heal. In addition, it may be necessary to help the damaged gut to heal and to support digestive processes with probiotic and enzyme supplements. Even infants can benefit from these supplements. Talk to your nutritionist or natural health practitioner about which supplements are best for your child.