In The Autoimmune Solution, I walk you through the four pillars of my protocol for preventing and reversing autoimmune disease. This is part two of a four-part series on each pillar. Read the other parts here:
Pillar II: Get rid of gluten, grains, and legumes.
Last week I explained how having a leaky gut puts you firmly on the autoimmune spectrum. That’s why “Heal Your Gut” is the first pillar of The Myers Way®. Now it’s time to make some changes that will get your gut back to a state of health. One of the biggest ways you can do that is to stop eating foods that are causing further inflammation and damage to your intestinal tract.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, semolina, spelt, rye, kamut, and barley. It’s what gives bread its sticky, doughy texture, but that’s not the only place you’ll encounter it: gluten is used as a food additive in practically every processed food, from salad dressing to ketchup.
You may be wondering how something so mainstream could be harmful to your gut. Wouldn’t we all be sick? Well, unfortunately, it has become mainstream to have a chronic illness such as heart disease, cancer, or an autoimmune disease–and the rates are rising. Gluten has been linked to more than 55 diseases, and an estimated 99% of people who have either celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity are never diagnosed.
How Does Gluten Cause Leaky Gut?
In The Autoimmune Solution, I explain in great detail how gluten contributes to a leaky gut which then leads you down the path to autoimmune disease. It prompts your immune system to attack your own tissues, it’s not easily digested, and it contributes to gut imbalances like Candida overgrowth and SIBO. But even more damaging is gluten’s ability to trigger the body to produce zonulin, a protein that can signal the tight junctions between the cells in your intestines to open and stay open.
The Problem With Grains and Legumes
Wheat is not unique. Other grains, pseudo-grains (like quinoa), and legumes contain similar proteins that contribute to leaky gut in several ways:
- by damaging intestinal cells
- by opening the tight junctions of the gut lining
- by feeding unfriendly bacteria to create gut dysbiosis
The edible portion of these plants is the seed, which contains the embryo. In order to pass on its genes, a plant produces its own chemicals to repel pests and prevent digestion. These chemicals can be very damaging to someone with an autoimmune disease. I outline all of these in The Autoimmune Solution in much greater detail, but I want to highlight a few in particular:
Lectins are plant proteins that bind to carbohydrates. The two types of lectins in particular that are known to cause a problem in humans are agglutinins and prolamins.
Agglutinins function as a natural insecticide and can be an aggravating factor in autoimmune disease.1 The effects of lectins within our bodies can be subtle and hard to recognize, but some agglutinins are incredibly dangerous. Ricin, a lectin in castor beans, can be is fatally toxic.2
This is why genetically modified organism (GMO) grains are especially harmful to those of us with autoimmunity. They have been engineered to produce more of their natural insecticides–the very chemicals that are so inflammatory! Because of this, if you do choose to include grains in your diet, I’d recommend going for non-GMO and heirloom varieties.
Prolamins are necessary proteins for seed growth, and therefore they are not easily digested. Gluten is a prolamin, and most grains contain a prolamin similar in structure to gluten. In a process called cross-reactivity, those prolamins can cause a similar immune response in those who are sensitive to gluten.
Phytates and phytic acid inhibit digestion and binds to certain minerals (specifically zinc, iron, and calcium) which are vital for our immune system to function properly, preventing their absorption. GMO grains contain an even greater concentration of phytic acid.
Saponins called “glycoalkaloids,” found in very high levels in pseudo-grains and legumes, are also a natural insecticide produced by these plants. Once they escape your gut lining (which is easy to do if you have a leaky gut!), they enter the bloodstream and destroy red blood cells.
Other Foods to Avoid
I also recommend that those with autoimmune diseases avoid vegetables in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes. These plants are very high in lectins that damage the gut lining, easily enter the bloodstream, and do not break down in cooking.3
Just as a seed (plant embryo) protects itself naturally with chemical defenses, so do other embryos, like eggs. Just like a seed, eggs contain a protective enzyme. The enzyme, called lysozyme, is inflammatory to people with autoimmune conditions.
While you’re going through the 30-day program in The Autoimmune Solution, there will be many foods you will avoid temporarily and then add back in. Grains, pseudograins, legumes, and a few other foods will probably need to stay out of your diet for good, as so many people with autoimmunity are extremely sensitive to them. Gluten is an absolute “no no,” I don’t recommend that anyone add gluten back into their diet.
A Note for Vegetarians
You may be reading this wondering what in the world you’re going to eat if your diet is one that relies on rice and beans. I became a vegetarian at 14, and it was very hard for me to see that my seemingly healthy diet was causing more problems for me–I share my own health story in The Autoimmune Solution, and the path I took to finally getting better. The good news is, there are plenty of vegetables that you can continue to enjoy while going through The Myers Way®. My nutritionist and I put together pages and pages of recipes as well as a seafood meal plan in The Autoimmune Solution to help you make the transition away from gluten, grains, and legumes toward a diet that heals you.