There is a well-known link between gluten and autoimmune 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. 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 Coeliac 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. However, gluten hurts your body. Here are the main reasons why gluten and autoimmune disease don’t mix.
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.
Things like stress, food and lifestyle choices, toxicity in our environment, and chronic infections all contribute to chronic inflammation. These are the 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.
Please note, it’s very important you keep in mind that gluten-free labelled 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 can be even more inflammatory than gluten.
Gluten Alters the Gut Microbiome - Your gut microbiome is comprised of all the microorganisms - the good and bad bacteria that live in your digestive tract. Research continues to reveal that our gut microbiome plays a critical role in the development of disease. Studies have even suggested that autoimmunity may develop from an imbalance in our gut microbiome, otherwise known as dysbiosis.
That’s why you must focus on improving your gut health if you have an autoimmune or chronic health condition (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! When you consistently eat foods known to feed the good bacteria in your gut you’ll improve your microbiome.
Gluten is certainly not the only thing that influences the microbes in your gut. Other types of foods, stress, medications, and chronic infections can also influence which bacteria proliferate in your digestive tract. However, gluten negatively alters the microbiome and these shifts in altered bacteria may be influencing your autoimmune condition.
Gluten Triggers A Leaky Gut - Another compelling reason that gluten and autoimmune disease don’t mix is because gluten plays a significant role in creating 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.
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 for triggering autoimmunity in the body. 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 particle 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 of 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 antibodies to your own body leads to autoimmune disease. Gluten and autoimmunity don’t mix because of this potential interaction.
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. 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 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. Eliminating gluten can help you can feel good again.