Do you have Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s, Graves’ disease, or any other autoimmune condition? If so, you know your diet affects the severity of your symptoms, and I can say without a doubt that there is one food in particular that can wreak havoc on your body: gluten. Let’s talk about the benefits of going gluten-free.
Gluten, a protein in wheat and certain grains, is now found nearly everywhere in our modern world. It is not only in flour-based foods such as pasta and bread, it is also used as a filler in meat substitutes, medications, and supplements. Additionally, gluten is used in body products such as toothpaste, and it can even find its way into “gluten-free” foods through cross-contamination.
To top it off, modern-day gluten is not the same gluten your grandparents ate. Scientists developed hybrid strains of wheat-containing new forms of gluten that our bodies are unfamiliar with. Scientists were also able to deaminate gluten, allowing it to be dissolved into liquids and other products including lunch meat and shampoo. Therefore, we are not only eating a different kind of gluten than our ancestors, we are also eating and being exposed to more of it.
The modified gluten protein causes problems with both your gut health and your immune system. It’s the perfect storm for the development and progression of inflammation and autoimmune disease. Even if you do not have an autoimmune disease, eating gluten can still be harmful to your health — it has been linked with more than 55 diseases.
The bottom line is that if you have an autoimmune disease or any inflammatory condition, you must go gluten-free. Here are the three most important reasons why going gluten-free is essential to your health.
1. Gluten Causes Leaky Gut
When you eat gluten in a piece of bread, in your lunch meats, or in any of the many hidden sources, it travels through your stomach and arrives in your small intestine. We know from Dr. Alessio Fasano’s research that it then triggers the release of zonulin. Zonulin is a chemical that signals the tight junctions of your intestinal wall to open up, creating intestinal permeability, or leaky gut.
Think of your gut lining as a drawbridge. Teeny tiny boats (micronutrients in food) that are meant to travel back and forth are able to go under the bridge without a problem. However, when gluten releases zonulin, it causes the drawbridge to go up and allows bigger boats (large proteins) to cross over that aren’t meant to travel through. In the case of your gut, its microbes, toxins, proteins, and partially digested food particles passing under the drawbridge and escaping into your bloodstream.
Through Dr. Fasano’s research (and I’ve confirmed it in my own practice) it’s confirmed to be one of the preconditions for developing an autoimmune disease. Once you have an autoimmune disease, leaving your leaky gut untreated long-term can cause your condition to progress and place you at a higher risk of developing another autoimmune disease. Why is this?
As all of the toxins, microbes, and food particles such as gluten flood your bloodstream, your immune system marks them as dangerous invaders and creates inflammation to get rid of them, which leads us to point number two.
2. Gluten Causes Inflammation
If you have an autoimmune disease, then that means that somewhere along the way, your immune system went rogue and began attacking your body’s own tissues. This change from healthy to autoimmune is not instantaneous. It happens over years. As I explain in my book, it’s a spectrum, and the factor that pushes you up the spectrum and towards autoimmunity is inflammation.
Inflammation is your immune system’s natural response to anything it deems dangerous, whether that’s a cut, a virus, or the gluten in a piece of birthday cake that slipped through your leaky gut. It’s estimated that one percent of the population has Celiac disease and one in 30 people have a gluten sensitivity. Eating gluten causes inflammation not only in people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance — inflammation from a leaky gut can happen to anyone.
When your immune system is continuously creating inflammation in response to gluten, a leaky gut, and microbes and toxins flooding your bloodstream, you can develop chronic inflammation. Your stressed immune system is less able to attack pathogens and invaders with precision. Instead, it begins indiscriminately sending wave after wave of attack. Eventually, your body’s own tissues end up on the receiving end of the attack, leading to autoimmune disease.
The only way to give your immune system the break it needs to regain its precision is to go gluten free entirely. That last word — entirely — is important. Recent research has shown that eating gluten can elevate your gluten antibodies for months,1 meaning that even if you only ate gluten four times a year, you would be in a state of inflammation year-round.
3. Gluten Looks Like Your own Tissues
Beyond creating a leaky gut, gluten poses a serious risk for those of us with autoimmunity because of a phenomenon called molecular mimicry, which is a dangerous case of mistaken identity.
Every time your body is exposed to an invader (in this case gluten), your immune system memorizes its structure. This ensures it can develop a defense against that pathogen and recognize it in the future. Unfortunately, the immune system’s recognition system isn’t perfect; as long as a molecule’s structure is similar enough, the immune system registers it as an invader and attacks.
Gluten, which is a particularly large protein, happens to be structurally similar to a number of your body’s tissues, particularly your thyroid.
Remember, if you have an autoimmune disease, you have a leaky gut and when your ‘drawbridge is open’ large proteins like gluten get into your bloodstream where your immune system detects and attacks them.
In those with autoimmune thyroid disease, every time they eat gluten the immune system sends out antibodies (white blood cells) to detect and destroy the gluten. However, gluten proteins look so similar to thyroid tissues, that antibodies end up attacking the thyroid by mistake.
There are several other food proteins, as casein in dairy, that have a similar molecular structure to gluten. This is called molecular mimicry. It causes your body to become confused and trigger an immune reaction. Cutting out gluten and the foods that cross-react with it, can make all the difference.
How to Heal the Damage Caused by Gluten
If you have an autoimmune disease or are anywhere on the autoimmune spectrum, the single best thing you can do for your health is to go gluten-free as soon as possible. If you don’t go gluten-free, the tight junctions in your gut will remain open and maintain a leaky gut, putting you in a state of chronic state of inflammation.
In addition to going gluten-free, I recommend using the proven 4R approach to heal your leaky gut. These two steps combined will give your immune system the break it needs to stop your body’s attack on itself.
In fact, healing your gut and eating a gluten-free diet are two of the most impactful changes you can make in reversing your autoimmune disease and eliminating the health problems autoimmune disease causes. They are the first two pillars of The Myers Way®. Going gluten-free benefits your gut, your digestion, and your immune system.
In both The Autoimmune Solution, and The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook, I walk you through all four pillars for preventing & reversing autoimmunity, as well as provide over 150 amazingly delicious and simple gluten-free recipes in my new cookbook.
If you’re on the autoimmune spectrum or have been diagnosed with a thyroid condition, check out my interview with Alessio Fasano about the role of Zonulin on leaky gut and thyroid health.