There is a well established connection between autoimmune thyroid disease (AITD) and gluten intolerance. So much so, that researchers suggest that anyone with AITD be tested for gluten intolerance and celiac disease. As a clinician, I have found that anyone with any autoimmune condition does much better without gluten. That said, those particularly with thyroid problems benefit from a gluten-free diet.
What is the Mechanism?
How is the thyroid affected by gluten? When gluten (specifically the gliadin portion), enters the bloodstream of a sensitive person, the immune system is activated because it sees gluten as a foreign invader. It reves up for the attack by messaging other lines in the immune forces.
Unfortunately, the molecular structure of the thyroid gland cells are very similar to the molecular structure of gluten. The immune system can easily mistake the cells of the thyroid gland for invader cells and attack it. This is how thyroid function is destroyed by your own body.
Importantly, it takes only one ingestion of gluten to fire up the immune system and this can last for 6 months! In these cases it is crucial to eliminate gluten from the diet completely.
Leaky Gut is Implicated in Celiac
In February 2012 in the journal, Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology a paper called Leaky gut and autoimmune diseases was published. The author, Alessio Fasano, M.D., has been researching this topic in relationship to celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. The review paper he wrote is focused on the role of impaired intestinal barrier function (leaky gut) on autoimmune pathogenesis. In short, he is trying to get to the real causes of autoimmunity.
In this paper, Dr. Fasano proposes a new theory that suggests that autoimmune disease is not only preventable, but also reversible. Amazing!
Fasano’s new theory explains how an autoimmune condition may develop. It involves a perfect storm of three conditions:
- Increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
- A genetic predisposition to autoimmunity
- An exposure to the environmental trigger (in this case gluten)
What this means is that people who have a leaky gut, as well as the genetics for celiac disease, can develop autoimmunity when they eat gluten. This will cause intestinal damage. The increased intestinal permeability that is part of the leaky gut, allows the environmental trigger (which in this case is gluten) to access the body and this triggers the genetic predisposition.
Conventional understanding of celiac included variable numbers 2 and 3, but instead of leaky gut, the third variable was the presence of circulating autoantibodies to the enzyme tissue transglutaminase. Using these antibodies excludes many people who do not test positive for them – however, they still have problems with gluten.
Acknowledging that autoantibodies are present does not explain why they are there. Fasano’s theory does explain this. Furthermore, it suggests that if you can cure the leaky gut, you can cure the autoimmune disease.
The Gluten of Today is Not the Gluten of Our Ancestors
The grains we eat today are very different from the grains of our ancestors. Modern grains have been hybridized (some genetically modified and still not labeled as such) to the extend that genetically, they are quite different than wheat grains from 200 years ago. They also have more gluten than they did years ago.
Furthermore, gluten has undergone a new process called deamination. Deamination is used in the food processing industry to render the gluten more water soluble so that it may be added to many foods easily without changing the food’s qualities.
These isolates are used as food emulsifiers, gelling agents, stretchablility agents in meat products (where one certainly does not expect to find gluten!), sauces and soups and as clarifying agents in red wine. Clearly, it is pervasive in the packaged food supply. Sadly it is even present in protein products like meat.
The immune response to this deamidated gliadin is much greater than to regular gliadin. A double blind, placebo controlled food challenge study in 2003 concluded that these processes used for gluten deamidation generate new allergenic epitopes.
Research show that this extensive use of deamidated wheat isolates (gliadin) may be a major cause of hidden food allergies. Can this be contributing to health problems today?
Studies show that this deamidation of gliadin peptides produces a greater activation of T cells – a greater immune response to it. This is not the wheat that our recent ancestors ate. This is a manufactured food product that has recently been introduced to the food supply and that is clearly causing exaggerated immune reactions in certain people.
Add all these problems together with the fact that the commercial grains are not properly prepared – they should be soaked and/or sprouted to remove anti-nutrients, lectins and phytic acid – to improve digestibility and nutrient absorption. Additionally, most grain products have many others questionable additives that may affect one’s health.
When people stop eating gluten and grain products many experience a great reduction in symptoms and a tremendous improvement in their health. When the diagnosis is indeed celiac or gluten intolerance, complete elimination of gluten is recommended.
Gluten is the Great Imitator
Do you know someone with any of the following symptoms or conditions?
- Brain fog?
- Joint pain?
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
- Unexplained rashes?
- Stomach or intestinal pain?
- Constipation or diarrhea?
- Unexplained weight loss (or gain)?
- Dental defects — cavities and/or crooked teeth?
- A child’s failure to thrive or shortened stature?
- ADD, ADHD, autism?
All of these, and more, could be due to thyroid problems which are caused by gluten in the diet. That’s why it is so difficult to diagnose. Thyroid problems could be the basis for many symptoms beyond the commonly known thyroid symptoms of fatigue, hair loss, weight gain, constipation, etc.
When a person has one autoimmune disease, it is common to see other autoimmune problems. Addressing the specific autoimmune condition is important, but addressing the actual cause of the autoimmunity is critical to healing, as indicated by Dr. Fasano’s theory outlined above.
Treating a thyroid problem without looking at gluten is not addressing the underlying mechanics of the problem.
The thyroid is the thermostat for every cell. Thyroid hormone affects every cell in the body. This is why so many symptoms such as – anxiety, moodiness, depression, hair loss, dry skin, heart disease, fatigue, and insomnia can result from a thyroid disorder.
Get your thyroid thoroughly checked!