“Gluten is not bad for you, bad gluten is bad for you…”
…says Dr. Tom O’Bryan, the boss of everything gluten. I listened to an interview he did a couple months ago and was blown away by what he said about gluten and I think you will be too. Here’s the wisdom.
There is gluten in a number of other foods besides wheat—you’ll find it in rice, corn, and even quinoa. The difference is, for the most part, humans can digest these gluten proteins without any problems. Gluten in wheat, rye, and barley are a separate family of glutens that no human can fully digest.
Yup, Dr. O’Bryan is saying that humans cannot properly digest gluten from wheat which means that gluten isn’t just a problem for celiacs or people with gluten sensitivity—it’s a problem for everyone. Say whaaat.
Should you eat gluten?
Okay, before I go any further: The point of this post is not to demonize gluten. As with all things food-related, the answer to whether or not you should consume grains containing this glue-like substance is not black-and-white. I mean, is anything ever that simple? For multiple reasons (which we’ll get into), modern-day gluten can cause issues for a lot of people—but that’s not to say that there aren’t some lucky individuals who can tolerate it without issue.
Wait, hold up. What do you mean by “modern-day gluten?”
It’s no secret that our ancestors enjoyed wheat, barley and rye on a regular basis. So how come celiac disease (and non-celiac gluten sensitivity) are fairly new concepts? Up until a few hundred years ago, before we began mass producing bread products from highly refined white flour, fresh wheat was stone ground, soaked, sprouted, and then fermented to create sourdough bread—a preparation process that made the nutrients in wheat more available and even broke down some of the gluten. So, if you think about it, our ancestors were getting the best quality bread for optimal digestion! They knew how to properly prepare it so that their bodies could break it down easier, without harm to their intestines. Sadly, that is not the same bread we’re consuming today.
Aside from the lack of proper preparation, commercial wheat is sprayed heavily with pesticides that contain glyphosate, a chemical that does a number on our gut health and immune systems. This could be partly why we have had such an increase in autoimmune conditions in the last few decades, especially in the US.
Gluten and Autoimmune Conditions
The pioneering researcher and pediatric gastroenterologist, Dr. Alessio Fasano, who started publishing ground-breaking papers in 2003 on gluten intolerance, states this:
There is a triad of things that happens in the development of most autoimmune diseases (1). Three things have to occur:
- A person has a genetic vulnerability to that particular condition
- There is an environmental trigger that sets it off, kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back
- Intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut)
Gluten can cause intestinal permeability in humans.
Every time most of us consume gluten, it creates microscopic tears in our gut lining. But how? It’s a structural thing: Gluten is made up of multiple proteins, and one in particular, gliadin, triggers the release of zonulin from the gut lining.
Zonulin is like a little woodpecker, making holes in the gut lining by weakening the tight junctions in the intestinal barrier and inducing inappropriate intestinal permeability. FYI: your intestines are meant to be a little leaky to let nutrients through, but gluten widens the holes in the strainer, so to speak. Our intestines heal, sure, but then we eat it again and again and again—and around we go! Eventually these tears stop healing, leading to pathogenic intestinal permeability. This is a gateway that makes people vulnerable to developing an autoimmune condition that can eventually become an autoimmune disease (2).
How exactly does gluten affect our guts?
I want you to think of your gut lining as a dam. Over time, the dam is exposed to the elements and must be monitored and repaired to prevent holes and leaks. Just one hole can allow massive amounts of water to escape which could ruin the whole purpose of the dam. Your gut is the same—just one tiny hole can cause big problems.
If you are exposed to allergenic foods (ahem, gluten), environmental toxins, GMOs, and stress over a long period of time, this very thin lining actually starts to deteriorate. And when this lining breaks down, it will leak food and toxins into your bloodstream.
When partially digested food and waste “leak” through the gut lining into the bloodstream, your immune system begins to attack these foreign substances. This then triggers an inflammatory response and an autoimmune reaction. This autoimmune reaction and inflammatory response can lead to joint pain, skin rashes or other skin conditions, chronic adult acne, pelvic pain, hormonal imbalances, and autoimmune diseases (3). As you can see, it’s not a pretty picture!
What autoimmune conditions are caused by gluten?
The three most prevalent autoimmune conditions caused by the inability to tolerate gluten are:
- Celiac disease (a condition in which gluten severely damages the gut and affects absorption of nutrients in genetically susceptible people)
- Type 1 diabetes (a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin)
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (a disorder in which the immune system turns against the body’s own tissues —> 49% of Hashimoto’s patients have elevated antibodies to gluten!) (4)
Can gluten affect thyroid performance?
According to Chris Kresser, several studies show a strong link between autoimmune thyroid disease (both Hashimoto’s and Graves’) and gluten intolerance. (5, 6, 7, 8, 9) The link is so well established that researchers suggest all people with autoimmune thyroid disease (AITD) be screened for gluten intolerance, and vice versa.
How does gluten affect the thyroid?
It’s a case of mistaken identity. The molecular structure of gliadin closely resembles that of the thyroid gland. When gliadin breaches the protective barrier of the gut and enters the bloodstream, the immune system tags it for destruction. These antibodies to gliadin also cause the body to attack thyroid tissue because it looks the same as gliadin. This means if you have AITD and you eat foods containing gluten, your immune system will attack your thyroid.
Even worse, the immune response to gluten can last up to 6 months each time you eat it. This explains why it is critical to eliminate gluten completely from your diet if you have AITD. There’s no “80/20″ rule when it comes to gluten. Being “mostly” gluten-free isn’t going to cut it. If you’re gluten intolerant, you have to be 100% gluten-free to prevent immune destruction of your thyroid.
I’ve written about thyroid function and how it is closely linked to fertility here and here.
If you’re uncertain about the health of your thyroid I recommend getting a full Thyroid Antibody Test. You can do this test from the comfort of your own home using Lets Get Checked. Be sure to use discount code Hormones20 to get 20% off the price of the test!
Can I cure my autoimmune condition?
Luckily, current research indicates that you can arrest autoimmune disease by healing your gut. That’s why it’s so critically important to evaluate the intestines when you’re considering, “Do I have a thyroid problem or not?” because you don’t necessarily treat where the symptoms are (thyroid), you treat what’s triggering the symptoms (gut problems).
Dr. O’Bryan uses a good analogy here: He says if you pull at a chain, it always breaks at the weakest link. Wherever your genetic weak link is (your brain, your bones, your pancreas, your ovaries, your thyroid, etc.), is usually where the dis-ease will typically manifest. For MANY of us, our genetic weak link is our thyroid and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is usually the end result. No bueno. For others it’s our pancreas and we develop Type 1diabetes, and yet others it’s our bones and we develop something like Rheumatoid arthritis.
Please keep in mind that you could have weak thyroid function and your sister could have weak muscle function which could manifest as fibromyalgia, so it all depends on where the weakest link is in each person.
If I quit gluten, can I ever have it again?
If you were to ask Dr. O’Bryan and the many gluten experts he’s consulted with, the answer would sadly be no. If someone with a gluten sensitivity quits gluten—reducing or eliminating their symptoms—resuming a gluten-heavy diet (eating gluten every day for a month, for example) will elevate antibodies again in 75% of celiacs. The other 25% don’t immediately have elevated antibodies, but eventually they go back up for everyone (10).
Based on the research, if you do have celiac disease or an autoimmune condition, this is one food that you can’t just eat in moderation. The danger is not just stomach issues or brain fog, it’s that weak genetic link that I mentioned above. If you had elevated antibodies for your thyroid or your brain, they always come back and your immune system begins attacking your thyroid, your brain, or whatever part of your body that is susceptible.
How much exposure does it take to turn back on a memory B cell (aka the gluten cell)? According to Dr. Tom in the interview, 1/1000th the initial dose of gluten. Basically, if someone serves you a salad with croutons on it, even if you pick the croutons off, the invisible crumb particles left in the salad can reactivate gluten response in your body! I know it’s inconvenient, but such is reality.
What foods and products have gluten?
This is a tough one! Many medications (even thyroid medications!) contain gluten, and this is not always indicated on the label. Instead, look for the word “starch,” which is often used as a filler. (Unfortunately, “starch” can equal wheat.) Even more unfortunate is the fact that most doctors and pharmacists are unaware—so doing your own research is a must.
Luckily, there are websites like glutenfreedrugs.com and celiac.com, which provide lists of medications and vitamins that do and don’t contain gluten. If your vitamins don’t say “gluten free” on the label, then you can most likely assume there is gluten in them. At the very least, ask!
I eat bread in Europe and I feel fine!
Many Americans who are gluten-intolerant claim they can eat wheat in European countries and have no issues. This could be partially due to the fact that pesticide chemicals such as Roundup and glyphosate are banned in Europe, making their wheat crops automatically healthier for us than those here in the States.
But according to Dr. O’Bryan, we must differentiate between how we feel when we eat something and what type of an autoimmune response we may have triggered. The breads in Europe have a lower FODMAP level—a lower level of fermentable carbohydrates—than American breads. This is because of the strains of wheat that are grown in the US. While they are not genetically modified (it is actually not legal to genetically modify wheat), they have been hybridized. They’ve gone through hundreds of hybridizations over the years to get the best strains of wheat that will produce more tonnage per acre and less vulnerability to pests. As a result, American wheat is very different to European wheat in terms of the carbohydrates and the gluten content.
Your immediate reaction to European wheat might be different, but the underlying immune reaction is the same. Those memory B cells (gluten cells) don’t forget. The symptoms in the gut have very little to do with whether or not you trigger the autoimmune response in your body. Meaning: You may not get bloated, but you are still doing damage. Boo.
Even more motivation for you…
Dr. O’Bryan conducted a study in his office years ago on 316 patients. He tested them for antibodies to gluten and antibodies to their brains. Of the 316 patients that came back positive to gluten antibodies (yup, all of them), 26% also had elevated antibodies to their cerebellum. This is the part of the brain that controls your balance and how you walk. Know any 70-year-olds who can walk up stairs easily? This is because their cerebellums have likely been under attack for many years.
Is it just gluten or all grains?
There is a group of gluten sensitive people who do much better when they go completely grain-free. In Dr. O’ Bryan’s practice, 20-35% of people don’t get better until they remove all grains. He has people go wheat, rye and barley free for about 2-3 weeks, and if they aren’t feeling better, he recommends they remove gluten-free oats. If there is no marked improvement after another 2-3 weeks, all grains are out to see how the patient responds. The problem is, even non-gluten grains can cross-contaminate with gluten-containing foods—so if you’re especially sensitive, it’s important to be cautious with any type of grain.
How to Test For Gluten Sensitivity
Let’s Get Checked is my go-to provider for at-home testing kits for myself and clients. You just order online, have the kit shipped to you, complete the tests at home, and send the kit back in the mail. One and done!
After processing, their team of physicians will review your results, and a member of the nursing team will call you to deliver the results and discuss treatment options.
They have an at-home Celiac Test to identify celiac disease antibodies with online results in only 5 days.
Biomarkers covered in the test:
- Tissue Transglutaminase (tTG)
- Endomysial Antibodies (EMA)
Be sure to use discount code Hormones20 to get 20% off the price of the test.
Gluten Supplement Recommendations
Glutenza – this product helps to digest gluten if someone happens to eat it accidentally. It breaks down 99% of gluten within 30 minutes, which means there won’t be chunks of undigested gluten protein going into the small intestine. Dr. O’Bryan highly recommends it!
Wheat Rescue – this product helps you digest gluten and will alleviate symptoms associated with gluten intolerance.
Here are my final thoughts on this gluten stuff…
A lot of people say to me “this gluten thing seems ridiculous” and “why has gluten become such a big deal?” My response is this: Every day our bodies are under constant assault. We are exposed to more stress, chemicals, and processed foods in one week than our grandparents were exposed to in one year—and I believe that our bodies simply can’t keep up. This has led to an epidemic of gut and digestive disorders that occur at younger and younger ages. Ultimately, I think the combination of our messed up guts, stress, poor food choices, chemicals (in drugs and food), and hybridized wheat are to blame for the vast increase in gluten intolerance and celiac cases.
That said, I’m not anti-gluten all of the time. I believe the most important thing is for you to achieve optimal gut health. Maybe you can do that eating gluten, or maybe not. To find out, I recommend eliminating gluten from your diet for 30 days and then reintroducing it to see how you feel. If you feel better off gluten and/or notice symptom improvement and then subsequently feel worse or notice symptoms returning when you reintroduce it, then you should consider eliminating it for good.
With diet and other lifestyle changes, I highly recommend the Microbiome Labs Total Gut Restoration line of products: MegasporeBiotic, MegaPrebiotic, and MegaMucosa. The results myself and my clients have had with these incredible products and the scientific studies that support their efficacy are unmatched, in my opinion. These are practitioner-only products, so please use code NJC when registering and making your purchase on their site.
0 thoughts on “The Link Between Gluten And Autoimmune Conditions”
I Would Agree with you in that the problem is not necessarily Gluten but the damaged Digestive Systems of most people in America. I am not keen on demonizing any nutrient. The focus should be on reestablishing integrity and healing of the human body, and not just avoiding certain allergens.
Hey Jimena, yes I can certainly agree with you on this. We 100% need to refocus our efforts on healing our digestive function.
Thanks for this VERY helpful article! I am living in Europe and luckily I can eat some bred which does not contain wheat.
Your welcome Fabienne! If your bread says “gluten free” on the packaging then you’re good to go! 🙂