Updated: Aug 25, 2022
It's not just a fad. Here are the real reasons to give up gluten if you have an autoimmune disease.
“Autoimmune disease, the third leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the industrialized world, is 10 times more common in a gluten-sensitive enteropathy (intestinal disease) of than in the general population.”
Gluten is the main protein in wheat. About 80% of the proteins in wheat are gluten and you may already know this, but gluten is a popular food additive in many processed foods and the top 10 most popular foods in the U.S. are processed foods!
For decades, there has been a surge of autoimmune diseases. Now of course this could be caused by numerous environmental triggers, but researchers have been looking into the parallels of the increase in gluten consumption in the U.S as one of the potential reasons for the rise of this disease. They observed that "only 1% to 3% of the 30% of the general population that carries the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) DQ2/8 allele will develop celiac disease." This would mean that your environment plays a more important role in the development of autoimmune diseases than your genetics.
So how could gluten affect whether or not you develop an autoimmune disease?
Increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) occurs in all individuals after gliadin exposure. That's everyone, even if you don't have an autoimmune disease! But patients with gluten sensitivity and those with active celiac disease showed a greater increase in intestinal permeability than celiacs in disease remission.
Zonulin is a main regulator of tight junctions in your small intestines that regulate your intestinal barrier. Gluten triggers the release of zonulin which leads tight junction dysfunction and a loss of your intestinal barrier function (leaky gut) for an extended period of time which allows the passage of food proteins, pathogens, and other harmful things that shouldn't get through. This can occurs not only in celiac disease, but also in other autoimmune disease like type 1 diabetes.
So maintenance of your gut health can help prevent autoimmune disease.
Gluten can affect how your genes behave. Say what?!
According to the CDC, "epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.
Gene expression refers to how often or when proteins are created from the instructions within your genes. While genetic changes can alter which protein is made, epigenetic changes affect gene expression to turn genes “on” and “off.”
Since your environment and behaviors, such as diet and exercise, can result in epigenetic changes, it is easy to see the connection between your genes and your behaviors and environment."
Gluten specifically affects your epigenetics altering the expression of genes involving methylation, antioxidants/oxidative stress balance, microbiome changes, and inflammatory cytokines.
And as you already know, many these play a role in the development of autoimmune disease and other chronic inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disease.
Processed foods containing wheat can trigger your immune system even more than raw wheat.
"When pizza, pasta, cereals, or bakery products from supermarket shelves were checked, products containing processed wheat provoked much higher immunoglobulin G (IgG), immunoglobulin A (IgA), and IgM antibody responses than products containing raw wheat. It is suggested that industrial processing of wheat may enhance the immunogenicity of the protein (gluten)"2
That means that donut, cookie, or frozen pizza could provoke your immune system even more and since an autoimmune disease is already considered an immune dysfunction, it could create more immune imbalance and worsen your autoimmune symptoms.
Symptoms Of Gluten Reactivity
So how do you know if gluten is an issue for you? Well if you have any of these symptoms then you may want to explore a gluten-free diet and see if your symptoms improve.
Symptoms of gluten reactivity include:
The lab that I use for gluten testing is Cyrex labs. They provide more in-depth testing that looks at all gliadin peptides (there are 4 of them!), tissue transglutaminase enzymes (2,3,6)- these are autoantibodies against your own gut, skin, and neural tissues, opioid peptides (like gluteomorphins), and wheat germ agglutinins to name a few. Many of these would not show up with the test being done in conventional doctors offices' which is why gluten could still cause you problems even though you received a negative gluten test result. So if you have an autoimmune disease related to gluten like type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto's hypothyroidism, etc. it would be worthwhile to get more in-depth testing.
Giving Up Gluten
Sometimes giving up gluten can be difficult even though you've seen the lab results and feel better without it. You are not alone! It can be a difficult food to give up and if you are having a hard time, then reach out for help. Find a naturopathic doctor to help you or you can apply to my 90-day program where managing your urges and cravings is one of the first places we start with your health. Schedule Here!
Arnson Y, Amital H, Shoenfeld Y. Vitamin D and autoimmunity: new aetiological and therapeutic considerations. Ann Rheum Dis. 2007 Sep;66(9):1137-42. doi: 10.1136/ard.2007.069831. Epub 2007 Jun 8. PMID: 17557889; PMCID: PMC1955167.
Lerner A, Shoenfeld Y, Matthias T. Adverse effects of gluten ingestion and advantages of gluten withdrawal in nonceliac autoimmune disease. Nutr Rev. 2017 Dec 1;75(12):1046-1058. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nux054. PMID: 29202198.
Hollon J, Puppa EL, Greenwald B, Goldberg E, Guerrerio A, Fasano A. Effect of gliadin on permeability of intestinal biopsy explants from celiac disease patients and patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Nutrients. 2015 Feb 27;7(3):1565-76. doi: 10.3390/nu7031565. PMID: 25734566; PMCID: PMC4377866.