Early research suggests celiac disease might be linked to exposure to toxic chemicals

New research suggests that exposure to certain toxic chemicals may be linked with celiac disease

A new small-scale study has found that young people with celiac disease show higher levels of toxic chemicals in the blood, which may be linked with an increased risk of developing the condition. 

Carried out by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, USA, the new study looked at 30 children and young adults, ages three to 21, who were newly diagnosed with celiac disease.

The researchers analyzed blood samples taken from the participants to look at their levels of toxic chemicals called persistent organic pollutants (POPs). This group of chemicals, which are known endocrine disruptors and have previously been linked with other health problems, include polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs) -- which are found in fire-retardants, perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) -- which are nonstick chemicals found in products like Teflon, and p,p'-dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE) -- which are found in pesticides.

The researchers then compared the blood samples with samples taken from 60 celiac disease-free patients who were of a similar age, gender, race and body mass index. The participants were also controlled for genetic susceptibility, as those with genes HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 are known to be at greater risk of being diagnosed with celiac disease.

The findings, published on Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research, showed that participants with high levels of DDEs were twice as likely to have just received a diagnosis of celiac disease than those without high levels.

In addition, both male and female celiac patients had higher levels of toxic chemicals in the blood than those without the disease, although there were some gender differences. Women with a higher-than-normal level of the toxic chemicals were at least eight times more likely to develop celiac disease, and those with a high level of PFAs were five to nine times more likely to have it, whereas for men, those with elevated blood levels of PBDEs were twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease.

Celiac disease affects approximately 1 percent of the population worldwide, and the majority of sufferers are women. Those with the condition have a severe gut reaction to foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, and experience symptoms that include diarrhea, bloating, fatigue and anemia. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet.

Previous research has suggested that the cause of the disease is largely genetic and is passed down from parents to their children. However, the researchers say that carrying out further research to build on the findings of the new study could provide new evidence that the underlying cause could be environmental and not just genetic.

"Our study establishes the first measurable tie-in between environmental exposure to toxic chemicals and celiac disease," says senior study investigator Jeremiah Levine, MD. "These results also raise the question of whether there are potential links between these chemicals and other autoimmune bowel diseases, which all warrant close monitoring and further study."