(NaturalNews) Children born to women with gluten sensitivity may be at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia or other psychiatric diseases later in life, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Karolinska Institute and Johns Hopkins Children's Center and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
The researchers emphasized that their study does not prove that gluten sensitivity actually causes schizophrenia, and noted that avoiding gluten while pregnant might eliminate the extra risk in sensitive mothers.
"Our research not only underscores the importance of maternal nutrition during pregnancy and its lifelong effects on the offspring, but also suggests one potential cheap and easy way to reduce risk if we were to find further proof that gluten sensitivity exacerbates or drives up schizophrenia risk," researcher Hakan Karlsson said.
In the study, which was funded by the Stanley Medical Research Institute, the Swedish Research Council and the city of Stockholm, researchers analyzed neonatal blood samples and birth records from 764 people born in Sweden between the years of 1975 and 1985. A total of 211 of these people eventually developed schizophrenia or another psychiatric disease. The researchers tested the blood samples for the presence of IgG antibodies, which the immune system produces in response to a dairy or wheat allergy.
"Because a mother's antibodies cross the placenta during pregnancy to confer immunity to the baby, a newborn's elevated IgG levels are proof of protein sensitivity in the mother," the researchers wrote.
While the researchers found no increased risk of schizophrenia in children whose mothers were allergic to dairy, they found that children exposed to gluten antibodies in utero were nearly twice as likely to develop a psychiatric disorder later in life. This association remained even after the researchers controlled for other known correlates of schizophrenia, including maternal age and method of delivery.
"Lifestyle and genes are not the only factors that shape disease risk, and factors and exposures before, during and after birth can help pre-program much of our adult health," researcher Robert Yolken said. "Our study is an illustrative example suggesting that a dietary sensitivity before birth could be a catalyst in the development of schizophrenia or a similar condition 25 years later."
The Gluten Connection
Although prior studies have linked inflammatory disorders and infections in pregnant women with elevated schizophrenia risk in their children, the new study is the first to show a connection to food sensitivity.
The study was inspired in part by the World War II-era that noted a decrease in cases of schizophrenia corresponding with European wheat shortages. The researchers also cited prior studies that found higher rates of schizophrenia in people with celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by the consumption of gluten. Not all people with gluten sensitivity suffer from celiac disease, which is relatively rare.
Because the current study was designed to look only for correlation and not causation, the researchers are already working on follow-up studies to tease apart the more specific interactions between gluten consumption, gluten sensitivity, and schizophrenia risk. One of the things they hope to discover is if gluten sensitivity is linked with increased schizophrenia risk in all people, or only in certain people with a genetic predisposition.
The cause of schizophrenia remains unknown. The disorder is currently believed to arise from an interaction between genetic and environmental factors. Known risk factors include advanced paternal age, exposure to viruses or toxic substances in utero, psychoactive drug use during young adulthood, and exposure to extreme stress.