When you have an autoimmune disease you want to feel better fast. And, one of the best ways to do that is to treat the root causes of your condition — and gluten is one of the many possible root causes.
There’s a well-known link between gluten and autoimmune disease.
That’s why it’s an almost universal recommendation among functional medicine healthcare providers that you adhere to a gluten-free lifestyle when you have an autoimmune condition.
However, like many, you may be confused by the gluten conundrum. You may wonder if it’s really necessary to eliminate gluten — especially if you don’t have digestive symptoms or if you’ve tested negative for Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Gluten can be sneaky. Eating it doesn’t always cause immediate symptoms and eliminating it doesn’t always make you feel better right away. This may be one of the reasons you find it challenging to stick with a gluten-free way of life.
However, most people with an autoimmune condition should adhere to a gluten-free lifestyle. Here’s why.
Gluten hurts your body.
It triggers pathways and mechanisms that lead to disease — even if you’ve tested negative for gluten-sensitivity.
Here are the 4 main reasons why gluten and autoimmune disease don’t mix.
Reason #1: Gluten Triggers Inflammation
Chronic inflammation has been implicated in almost every chronic disease— including autoimmune disease. In other words, if you have a chronic health issue you’ve likely had inflammation in your body for many years. Long-term inflammation can trigger autoimmune disease due to the damage it causes your cells. (1)
Things like stress, food and lifestyle choices, toxicity in our environment, and chronic infections all contribute to chronic inflammation. These are the exact same things that are considered the root causes of autoimmune disease.
Going a step further, inflammation worsens the symptoms and the progression of autoimmune conditions. Anything you can do to reduce your overall inflammation and induce anti-inflammatory mechanisms in your body will help reverse the autoimmune process. Studies show that gluten-free diets reduce overall inflammation. (2)
As a side-note, it’s important to keep in mind that gluten-free labeled foods — like “gluten-free bread” and “gluten-free cookies” — can be VERY inflammatory. This is because the alternatives to gluten used in these products — like tapioca and potato starch — are even more inflammatory than gluten.
Reason #2: Gluten Alters the Gut Microbiome
Your gut microbiome includes all the microorganisms — including the good and bad bacteria — that live in your digestive tract. Research continue to confirm that your gut microbiome plays a critical role in the development of disease. Studies suggest that autoimmunity may develop from an imbalance in our gut microbiome — otherwise known as dysbiosis. (3)
That’s why improving your gut health if you have an autoimmune or chronic health condition is an important step (even if you don’t have digestive symptoms). Food is one of the quickest ways you can alter the microbiome . Studies suggest that the bacterial composition of your gut can change rapidly — within hours of eating foods! (4)
Bottom line, when you consistently eat foods known to feed the good bacteria in your gut you’ll improve your microbiome. Gluten negatively influences your gut microbiome and this may directly influence the development and progression of autoimmune disease. This alone is a compelling reason to eliminate gluten from your diet.
Gluten is certainly not the only thing that influences the microbes in your gut. Other types of foods, stress, medications, parasites and chronic infections can also influence which bacteria proliferate in your digestive track. However, gluten negatively alters the microbiome and these shifts in altered bacteria may be influencing your autoimmune condition. (5)
Reason #3: Gluten Triggers A Leaky Gut
Another compelling reason that gluten and autoimmune disease don’t mix is because gluten plays a significant role in the development of a leaky gut. A leaky gut occurs when the lining of your digestive tract becomes damaged and loses its ability to function properly. This creates “holes” in the lining of your intestines that shouldn’t be there.
If you have a leaky gut, particles that aren’t supposed to enter your bloodstream and circulate throughout your body break through the intestinal lining. When this happens, the immune system targets these molecules generating an inflammatory response. It’s believed that this is one of the mechanisms for the development of autoimmune disease.
In his landmark 2009 study, Alessio Fasano, MD, suggested that three things must be present for an autoimmune condition to develop: a genetic predisposition, a trigger, and a leaky gut . He further suggested that gluten directly triggers the release of zonulin, the molecule that breaks down the tight junctions (or the glue) that hold our intestinal lining together. (6)
In other words, gluten causes a leaky gut. And a leaky gut creates the opportunity for the “trigger” to enter the bloodstream facilitating the development of autoimmune disease. When you remove gluten from your diet and implement the “5R’s Approach to Healing Your Leaky Gut” you can heal your body.
It’s a common misconception that if you don’t have digestive symptoms then you don’t have a leaky gut. This isn’t true. If you know you’re sensitive to gluten but you don’t experience digestive symptoms, you’re still triggering a leaky gut when you eat gluten. Bummer, right? (7)
Reason #4: Two Words…Molecular Mimicry
Molecular mimicry basically means that two molecules or substances look alike — one mimics the other. It’s believed this is a key mechanism that causes autoimmune disease. (8)
It works like this. Something foreign to our body — like a virus, bacteria, or food particle — shares a similar molecular structure to a part of our body — like thyroid tissue.
When a foreign particles gets into your bloodstream (often because of your leaky gut!) the body creates antibodies to that particle. It tells the immune system to “destroy” or get rid it. The problem occurs when your own body tissue resembles the same molecular structure as that foreign particle.
The body gets confused and may create antibodies to your own body tissue. And this is what leads to autoimmune disease.
Studies have found that antibodies to gliadin (a protein in gluten) react with several different body tissues. This is also known as “food autoimmune reactivity” and has been seen when antibodies to gluten react with tissues of the thyroid, brain, nervous system and joints. (9, 10)
In other words, if your body is sensitive to gluten you’re making antibodies to parts of the gluten molecule, like gliadin. These same anti-gliadin antibodies may attach to tissues in your body — like thyroid, joint or brain tissue — flagging them for destruction.
If you remove gluten from your diet entirely, you’ll no longer create these anti-gliadin antibodies and you’ll be less likely to create this type of response.
Some Final Thoughts.
If you have an autoimmune condition, gluten may be heavily influencing your symptoms and the progression of your disease.
Gluten not only causes inflammation, an altered microbiome, and a leaky gut but it also may be directly triggering autoimmunity in your body through molecular mimicry.
That’s 4 very good reasons why gluten and autoimmune disease don’t mix.
Eliminating gluten can be an important key step on your way to feeling better. It may feel like an overwhelming task to remove gluten from your diet but it’s worth it. Work with a functional medicine healthcare provider that can guide you.
You can feel better. You can discover and treat the root causes of your autoimmune condition and see your life turn around for the better. And, you can feel good again.
Have questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.