Gluten-Free for Autoimmune Disease

Gluten Free for Autoimmune Disease

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley and rye.  It’s found in just about everything, even places you wouldn’t expect. People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten at all costs but there is also a large portion of the population who have non celiac gluten sensitivity. Gluten is linked to more than 50 different disease states.

People with autoimmune disease should strongly consider avoiding gluten and here is why:

  • In Celiac disease (an autoimmune disease), gluten triggers your body to attack cells in your small intestine which damages your microvilli. Without microvilli, you can’t absorb nutrients properly and then you see a snowball effect in breakdown throughout the body from lack of nutrients. 1 in 133 Americans has celiac disease.
  • In Hashimoto’s (autoimmune thyroid disease) consuming gluten can cause the body to become confused and attack thyroid tissue.
  • In Type 1 Diabetes several reports have linked gliadin to Type 1 diabetes autoimmunity. Gliadin is one of the proteins in gluten that is responsible for the release of zonulin.  Zonulin is a protein that is made in gut and liver cells that can breakdown the tight junctions of your gut lining, making it “leaky”. We prefer that our gut is NOT permeable (leaky). If food, waste, bacteria, or any foreign substances in the gut start leaking out into our bloodstream this can often cause inflammation and can launch an autoimmune response/attack.

When a person who has (or is on the verge of ) an autoimmune disease, eats gluten, it can strengthen the body’s attack against its own cells. This is called molecular mimicry and it occurs in many autoimmune conditions.

Bottomline: Gluten can cause the body to attack it’s own cells…not good.

Other diseases associated with gluten are (but not limited to) are:

Ankylosing Spondylitis, Crohn’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Type 1 diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Schizophrenia, Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy and Glaucoma (which is believed to have an  autoimmune component) to name a few.  And then some inflammatory diseases, neurological disease, autism, chronic fatigue and cancer (brain, breast, lung, ovarian, pancreatic), to name a few more.

He’s Your Guy:

Alessio FasanoOne of the key researchers to follow if you are interested in learning more about gluten and the effects it has on the body is Dr. Alessio Fasano. He is chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, directs the Center for Celiac Research, specializing in the treatment of patients of all ages with gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity. He did the study back in 2003 that showed us the actual rate of celiac disease in Americans (1 in 133). If you are looking to read more about the effects of gluten on the body in terms of autoimmune disease, he’s your go-to guy.


So, who really should avoid gluten?

Let’s take this a step further. Think about this for a moment —  let’s pick a food item you eat all the time (pick a food, any food), if your gut is leaking particles into your bloodstream and your immune system is already “on guard”, your body may start to look at that food as an invader. In reality, it is. That favorite food is supposed to be in your gut, not floating around in your blood, right? So, if your immune system starts identifying that food as an invader, you may start having food sensitivity symptoms every time you eat it.

Technically, you could say the ROOT of the problem here is gluten. If gluten wasn’t present and triggering zonulin to open the junctions in the gut walls, to let anything and everything into the blood, the body’s immune system wouldn’t be getting all worked up over your beloved food! The good news is, in this situation, it’s not actually a food “allergy”, it’s just a sensitivity. Once the leaky gut issue is resolved and the inflammation has calmed, there’s a good chance the sensitivity will as well, over time.

Bottomline: By eating gluten-free, you can allow your body to start healing the “leaky gut”, which will then keep food and other particles where there are supposed to be, which will cut down on food sensitivities.

Still Skeptical?

So, maybe you’re still a little skeptical about this gluten-free business. You should be, this is a big change for you, your family, and your entire eating experience.  Here’s what you need to know.  The gluten we have today ain’t your grandma’s gluten. Over the years new strains of wheat have been developed to create fluffier baked goods. These new proteins are foreign to our body and they are coming at us in much larger doses than we have ever seen, and the body doesn’t know how to respond. Gluten is put through a chemical process so it not only makes bread fluffy but now it’s a preservative in your soy sauce or a thickener in your salad dressing. The term “Natural Flavors” is another example of a sneaky place where gluten hides. It’s even in personal care products (shampoo, toothpaste, lotions etc)!

Bottomline:  Between the new strains of wheat that have been created and the abundance of gluten that we come in contact with daily, it has really made it hard on our immune system and our bodies are struggling to adapt.  Remember, grandma probably wasn’t eating a whole lot of packaged food back in the day and was baking her own bread from “older” strains of wheat that had been around for a while.

How do you know if you have a leaky gut and need to cool it on the gluten?

You likely have leaky gut if you….

  • Already have an autoimmune disease
  • Brain fog, anxiety, depression
  • Gut stuff like diarrhea, bloating, constipation
  • Gut infections: parasites, bacteria, or fungal overgrowth
  • Skin issues: eczema, acne, rosacea
  • Joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, frequently get cold/flu and other infections
  • Food sensitivities
    …..just to name a few.  If you suspect that you may have leaky gut, reach out to an integrative functional medicine/nutrition practitioner.  Naturopathic Doctors, some Registered Dietitians, and Functional Medicine Medical Doctors are a good place to start.

Some of the top culprits causing leaky gut are:

  • Stress
  • Gut imbalance related to food intake
  • Mold/Heavy Metals
  • Surgeries
  • Foodborne illness
  • Chemotherapy
  • Alcohol
  • Medications: such as acid blockers, birth control, NSAIDs, prednisone
    ***Note: do not stop any medications without discussing it with your doctor first

Is Gluten-Free the Miracle Cure?

Even though being 100% gluten-free can be very beneficial there is a big learning curve at first, but yes it can feel like a miracle cure….to some.  With that said, we also need to look at the downside of gluten-free on your health. Gluten-free can also mean you are eating food that is not as nutrient-dense, and has less fiber, unless you are really paying attention.

Just one slice of gluten-free bread contains the same amount of calories or energy as 2 slices of regular bread. Eating whole wheat (full of gluten) can be a great source of fiber in the diet. As people adopt a gluten-free lifestyle it’s important to choose high-quality products and pay attention to the ingredients. Just because it’s gluten-free, does not mean it’s healthy.

Extra non-starchy vegetable servings are a must, to make up for the fiber/pre-biotics necessary to feed our good gut bacteria. Often gluten-containing bread/cereals were fortified with extra vitamins and nutrients, so making sure your diet is high quality is highly important.

If you are following a gluten-free diet by choice or because of a medical condition, seek guidance from a dietitian trained in gluten-free diets to make sure you are not consuming any hidden sources of gluten and to make sure your diet is balanced and supporting your good gut bacteria (maybe some pre-biotics are necessary).

Gluten-free can be a complete game changer for many people who have autoimmune diseases or gluten sensitivity.  Your gut bacteria can make or break your overall health so be sure to take good care of them whether you are gluten free or not!

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Even though diabetes is present in your life, there is hope. Hope that harmony between you and diabetes can be attained.

Angela Manderfeld, RD

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