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The Negative Impact of Gluten on Autoimmune Disorders: Understanding the Connection

autoimmune diseases celiac hashimoto's multiple sclerosis rheumatoid arthritis thyroid disorders
photo of field of wheat at sunset

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, has been negatively linked to several autoimmune disorders. Autoimmune disorders are conditions where the body's immune system makes a mistake and starts to attack healthy cells, tissues, and organs. Below are some examples:

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the joints. A study published in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy found that individuals with rheumatoid arthritis who follow a gluten-free diet can experience improved symptoms and reduced inflammation.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is consumed. A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that individuals with celiac disease who continue to consume gluten can experience an increased risk of developing other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition where individuals experience symptoms similar to celiac disease after consuming gluten but without intestinal damage. A review published in the Journal of Autoimmunity found that non-celiac gluten sensitivity can trigger autoimmune disorders in susceptible individuals.

Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of the thyroid gland. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that individuals with Hashimoto's who consume gluten have increased levels of antibodies against their own thyroid tissue.

WHY AND HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?

In several potential ways.

Molecular mimicry is a process where a foreign substance, such as a protein from food (like gluten), resembles a component of the body's tissues. This similarity in structure can lead to the immune system mistakenly identifying the body's tissues as foreign and launching an immune attack against them.

Increased Intestinal Permeability. Gluten has been shown to increase intestinal permeability (leaky gut). A leaky gut allows substances that should remain in the gut, such as undigested food particles and toxins, to leak into the bloodstream. This can trigger an immune response and inflammation, potentially contributing to autoimmune reactions.

Immune Activation. Gluten can activate immune cells in the gut, releasing inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines can further contribute to intestinal damage and inflammation, which may exacerbate autoimmune conditions or trigger autoimmune responses in susceptible individuals.

Dysbiosis and Gut Microbiome. An imbalance in the gut microbiome, known as dysbiosis, has been associated with various autoimmune disorders. Gluten consumption might alter the gut microbiome composition in some individuals, potentially influencing immune function and contributing to autoimmune responses.

Genetic Predisposition. Some people carry genetic factors that make them more susceptible to developing certain autoimmune disorders, including celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For example, certain human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes are strongly associated with celiac disease risk.

Epigenetic Factors. Epigenetic changes, which can be influenced by environmental factors such as diet, may impact gene expression and immune system regulation. Gluten consumption could potentially lead to epigenetic modifications that contribute to autoimmune responses in susceptible individuals.

Immune System Activation Outside the Gut. Although celiac disease primarily affects the small intestine, some studies suggest that gluten can activate the immune system outside the gut as well. This immune activation may play a role in developing or exacerbating autoimmune conditions in various organs or tissues.

Other Dietary Components. In some cases, it may not be gluten alone but rather the combination of gluten with other dietary components that trigger autoimmune responses. For instance, certain grains containing gluten may also contain other proteins or compounds that could contribute to immune reactions.

There are so many gluten free (and paleo/grain-free) options out there nowadays - but gluten is sort of 'hidden' in many things people would not guess...like soy sauce. Soy sauce has wheat in it, and the gluten-free alternative for that is Tamari soy sauce.

About the author:  Elle Russ is a #1 bestselling author, world-renowned thyroid health expert, and master coach. If you have Hypothyroidism or Hashimoto's - take her Thyroid Masterclass HERE  

Sources:

  • American Journal of Gastroenterology study: "Celiac disease and risk of other autoimmune diseases: Non-celiac gluten sensitivity:
  • Journal of Autoimmunity review: "Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: a work-in-progress entity in the spectrum of wheat-related disorders."
  • Journal of Nutrition study: "Gluten and thyroid autoimmunity.”
  • Arthritis Research & Therapy study: "The impact of a gluten-free diet on the quality of life and clinical status of patients with rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized cross-over trial."
  • American Journal of Gastroenterology, “Celiac Disease and Other Autoimmune Diseases”
  • Journal of Autoimmunity, “The Role of Gluten in Autoimmunity”
  • Journal of Nutrition, “Gluten and Hashimoto's Thyroiditis”
  • Arthritis Research & Therapy, “The Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet on Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms”

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