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Natural Awakenings Dallas -Fort Worth Metroplex Edition

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How Gluten Plays a Role in Autoimmune Diseases

Sep 03, 2013 05:45PM ● By Betty Murray

Betty Murray, CN, CHC

Autoimmune diseases are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Currently, there are more than 50 million people in the country diagnosed with an autoimmune condition; more than cardiovascular disease (22 million) and cancer (9 million) combined.

The list of autoimmune diseases includes MS, Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren's syndrome and scleroderma. Celiac disease, unlike all the others, is the only autoimmune disease for which the exact trigger is known. Gluten is the trigger for celiac disease, and when that trigger is removed, the body stops destroying its own small intestine.

The damage gluten causes to the small intestine results in leaky gut syndrome, where undigested foods, bacteria, yeast and other toxins spill from the intestines into the bloodstream, thus engaging the immune system. It may very well be a key player in developing autoimmune diseases. In fact, a recent study indicated that the number of years a person has consumed gluten increases the number of autoimmune disorders found in celiac disease suffers. Those with late onset autoimmunity or delayed diagnosis have a greater risk of other autoimmune disorders. So leaky gut equals autoimmunity risk.

Once damage to the small intestine has occurred and the gut becomes leaky, the immune system has weakened and may have difficulty recognizing itself from “other”, and not only can digestive complaints result, but also symptoms can arise in other systems throughout the body. Damage can include flattening of the villi, as in celiac disease, or inflammation and intestinal permeability or engaging the immune system in the intestines that does not result in damage to the villi. Celiac disease is but one tentacle of the gluten-related disorders octopus.

It has been proved that the intestine is not the only tissue targeted by the immune reaction to gluten. The prime example of this is a disease called dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), where the gluten sensitivity manifests primarily in the skin, with only mild or no intestinal involvement. Perhaps a number of autoimmune diseases involve an immune response to dietary gluten, indicating that it can create symptoms anywhere in the body. Gluten may be the unknown trigger of autoimmune disease through its effect of creating a leaky gut.

To find out if gluten is a player in their health, people can get tested for anti-gliadin antibodies, a genetic risk for gluten sensitivity and celiac, and cross reactivity to other foods. This should include a comprehensive stool analysis test completed to assess gut health. An old-school Elimination Diet (CleanseTheBook.com) provides an easy-to-follow self-test. Many of these steps are best administered with the help of an experienced clinician skilled in working with autoimmune conditions.


Betty Murray, CN, CHC, is a certified nutritionist, health coach, author of Cleanse: Detox Your Body, Mind and Spirit and founder of Living Well Dallas (LivingWellDallas.com). She is also the education director for the Gluten Intolerance Group of Greater Dallas. For more information about food sensitivities and diet, contact her at 972-930-0260 or [email protected].

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