The Gluten & Autoimmunity Connection

In, Reboot Your Health- Give Up Gluten, I learned I was gluten intolerant and shared how removing gluten from my diet gave me energy, improved insomnia, fatigue, migraines, heat sensitivity, and more. Although I was feeling much better, I still needed to understand the impact gluten had on the immune system. Here’s what I learned:

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It gives things like dough it’s elasticity and helps to bind pasta and baked products. It’s also used as a filler in supplements, medication, lunch meat, beauty products, and many other items.

What is the difference between Celiac Disease and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity? 

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten damages the intestinal lining, causing inflammation and making it more difficult for the body to absorb nutrients.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity is a system-wide immune response that occurs in genetically susceptible people who eat gluten. Someone with gluten sensitivity may experience numbness in the extremities, brain fog, joint pain or headache; hours, or even several days after ingesting gluten.1 “Neurological issues can include an immunological attack on the central and peripheral nervous tissue accompanied by neurodegenerative changes. Two examples are cerebellar ataxia and peripheral neuropathy. A gluten-free diet can be beneficial.”2

How does gluten affect the immune system?

Leaky gut is thought to be the root cause of autoimmune disease. According to Dr. Amy Meyers, to have a healthy immune system you must have a healthy gut. In her book, The Autoimmune Solution, she says that 80% of the immune system is in the gut and separated from the rest of the body by an intestinal wall that is only one cell thick. If your gut becomes too permeable and partially digested food leaks through, your immune system becomes compromised.3 Dr. William Davis, believes that the problem is a subcomponent of gluten called gliadin that is hard to digest. If gliadin is partially digested, it binds to the intestinal lining, which helps make it more permeable.4 When the gluten protein leaks through the gut wall and hits your immune system it creates an immune response. The body does not recognize the protein and launches an inflammatory attack against the’ foreign invaders.’ Antibodies are made, and they attach to the proteins and create immune complexes. When this happens on a regular basis, eventually the body can’t get rid of them and autoimmune disease develops. Research has linked higher than usual levels of anti-gliadin antibodies in multiple sclerosis patients. Gluten is also said to change gut bacteria which in turn affects the immune system.6

Is there a link between gluten and MS?

Dr. Peter Osborne, Clinical Director of Origins Health Care, believes there is a scientific connection between MS and gluten. He contends that gluten has been shown to trigger neurological antibodies that cause demyelination and can contribute to vitamin and mineral deficiencies which in turn can disrupt the nervous system leading to increased neuropathy and chronic inflammation.7 “Vitamin B-12 deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies caused by gluten.  A deficiency in this important B vitamin can cause demyelination of the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Demyelination is the process where the insulating layer of fat around the nerves is broken down. Without insulation, the nerves do not deliver electrical impulses as efficiently, and symptoms of ataxia set in.”8 Ataxia is impaired coordination.” In MS this can be seen as clumsiness, unsteady gait, impaired eye and limb movements, tremor, and speech problems.”9

There are many anecdotal stories of people with MS who say that their symptoms improved after removing gluten from their diets, including Dr. Terry Wahls, author of The Wahls Protocol. Dr. Wahls had been in a wheelchair when she radically changed her diet; removing gluten, dairy, and legumes. Today Dr. Wahls no longer needs her wheelchair and is said to live an active life. There is currently no cure for MS but utilizing the power of a high nutrient diet and removing trigger foods is something we can do to try and improve our health.

The thing about gluten is that you might not see the damage that is going on in your body, but inflammation is a sign that something is wrong. Many experts agree that if you have an autoimmune disease, you likely have a leaky gut. Since we know that gluten can affect the stomach lining, and we know that leaky gut leads to autoimmune disease, it seems to me that healing the gut and lowering inflammation should be a priority.  For me, going gluten-free was taking that first step toward improved health. What are you doing to lower inflammation in your body? Please let us know in the comments.

1 Sapone A, et al. “Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification” BMC Medicine 2012, 10:13 http://biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/10/13 , www.beyondceliac.org/collaborative-report-suggests-new-classification-for-gluten-related-disorders

2 Hernandez-Lahoz C, Mauri-Capdevlia G, Vega-Villar, Rodrigo L, “Neurological disorders associated with gluten sensitivity” Rev Neurol. 2011 Sep 1;53(5):287-300(www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21796607

Meyers Amy, M.D, “The Autoimmune Solution- Prevent and Reverse the Full Spectrum of Inflammatory Symptoms and Diseases,” HarperOne HarperCollins, Page 50

4 Davis William, M.D, “ The Grain-Free Cure- The Delicious 4-Week Step-Down Plan to Easily Eliminate Grains to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, and Get Healthy for Life,” Rodale 2014,  Part 1, No Grain is a Good Grain, page 8

5 Shor DB, Barzilai O, Ram M, Izhaky D, Porat-Katz BS, Chapman J, Blank M, Anaya JM, Shoenfeld Y, “Gluten sensitivity in multiple sclerosis: experimental mythor clinical truth?”  Ann N Y Acad Sci 2009 Sep:1173:343-9. Doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04620.x. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19758171

6 http://www.kellybroganmd.com/gluten-and-gut-bugs/

7  Osborne Peter, M.D., www. Glutenfreesociety.org/multiple-sclerosis-caused-by-gluten/

8  Osborne, Peter, M.D., www.glutenfreesociety.org/ataxia-another-symptom-of-gluten-induced-   damage/#dgB815z9rSrqt1z6.99

9  http://www.mstrust.org.uk/a-k/ataxia

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