Why is Gluten Bad for You When it Comes to Autoimmune Disease?

flour with word gluten

Autoimmune disease affects more people than heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined. 

It’s pretty staggering if you stop to think about it. And it’s only increasing in prevalence.

There are currently over 100 autoimmune diseases that could be affecting you or a loved one. While autoimmune diseases are typically named after the organ or gland they “attack”, it is a systemic immune response gone awry that drives all of them. And gluten plays an important part in it all. Gluten is bad for you for a few reasons, especially, if you are dealing with or suspect you have an autoimmune disease.

The road to autoimmune disease is typically a long one. This dynamic doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s usually been brewing for years. There are often signs and symptoms, long before a diagnosis is made that someone is experiencing an imbalance. Most go unheeded. These vague signs and symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, brain fog, skin or hormone problems are often not linked; not even by specialist conventional healthcare providers.  It is a unique opportunity to recognize how certain aspects of your lifestyle, such as gluten consumption, are contributing to this dynamic and take action to change this course. Yes, you have that power. It’s rooted in your choices.


Since it is Autoimmune Disease Awareness month, we’d like to highlight the very common link to autoimmune disease - gluten and why it’s bad for you. We’ll discuss its effects and why you might want to take a good look at how it could be impacting you. 


It’s definitely bigger than “gluten is bad for you” fad that’s for sure.


What is gluten?


Gluten is the protein found in:

  • wheat
  • rye 
  • barley 


These foods are a staple in the standard American diet, both on their own in products such as bread and pasta and as ingredients in many processed foods. Triticale - a cross between wheat and rye is another gluten containing food but not as common. 


As the name implies, “glu”-ten has the consistency of a glue-like substance that gives food its form and shape. If you’ve ever made dough for bread baking you can see how this is so. The food industry has copped onto this and adds it to nearly everything to give it form - think popular commercial chip shapes. Wheat is a highly commoditized crop. We have more than we know what to do with so why not make everyone happy and add it to everything? I know, crazy right? It’s also added as a filler and thickener in products such as salad dressings. There is also a plethora of “hidden” gluten in many of the foods you might eat daily and not realize. 

Some examples are: 

  • soy sauce 
  • teriyaki sauce 
  • corn flakes 
  • rice cereals. 


Malt from barley is often added for texture and flavor and as a filler to these types of products. Ultra processed foods add transglutaminases to their products for many of the same reasons. These are gluten-like, lab-produced proteins that induce the same effects and reactions as gluten. The kicker is they are not obligated to list transglutaminase as an ingredient. For a more comprehensive list of gluten containing products, please refer to www.gluten.org. It’s also important to note that the US produces a highly manipulated and substandard form of commercial wheat whose gluten content is off the charts. 


This is not your Italian grandmother’s wheat or semolina from the old country. 


And while any form of wheat contains gluten, this is gluten on steroids.

How can gluten impact us?


You have probably heard of Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune illness itself. This is when the body’s immune system produces antibodies specific to gluten in the gastrointestinal mucosa. More specifically, they damage the villi of the small intestines where most absorption takes place. This usually produces diarrhea and other significant malabsorption problems. While someone with diagnosed Celiac disease has a label and is advised to avoid gluten due to a known sensitivity, there are many people who produce antibodies to gluten who do not have Celiac disease. They have developed a sensitivity and lost their oral tolerance to gluten. 

This is where it gets interesting. Why did this happen? 

It’s difficult to know for sure but there is a vicious cycle that typically ensues with this kind of scenario - which is way more common than people realize. There are many people walking around with NCGS (non Celiac gluten sensitivity). 

This is an immune mediated food sensitivity.  Signs and symptoms are not always gastrointestinal - think: 


  • Headaches
  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain 
  • Mood changes


And a whole host of other ones. These can occur within a few hours to a few days of ingesting gluten. These are the very signs and symptoms of many autoimmune illnesses.


We know that gluten produces proteins in the gut called zonulin and occludin. These proteins have been shown in robust research to quite literally bust the tight junctions of your gut open causing “leaky gut.” This allows partially digested gluten into the systemic circulation and the immune system sees this as a threat so it mounts an inflammatory immune response. This is a systemic inflammation sparing no part of the body - hence all kinds of signs and symptoms. 


Because exposure to gluten is so common, especially when it’s not on our radar, we never seem to not be exposed. So, a chronic immune burden is always in play. Even those who diligently avoid it can be exposed inadvertently. This constant exposure continues to weaken the gut lining perpetuating and worsening leaky gut, which is a precursor to all autoimmune diseases. This is when inflammation focuses its attention on a particular organ or gland. 


The data shows that up to 30% of people with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism have NCGS. What’s even more astounding is that there is a large group of people who have Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism who don't even know it, let alone that they are gluten-sensitive. This means there’s an awful lot of gluten-sensitive, Hashimoto hypothyroid people walking around with all sorts of signs and symptoms that are being influenced by gluten. It’s also a perfect set up for other autoimmune diseases. If you have one autoimmune disease, chances are you will develop additional ones. 

Why molecular mimicry is important.


Molecular mimicry is when one molecule has a very similar structure to another. This is usually not an issue when our bodies are functioning as they should and we have an appropriate surveilling immune system - our bodies are meant to do this stuff and can discern quite well. But, we can only take so much. If our immune system is chronically taxed, things can start to go awry. There’s a lot that goes into making the right call when it comes to protecting us. An overworked system is bound to make a mistake. It can be applied to any system really, even a biological one. 


Our immune system’s response is to tolerate things that are not inherently threatening to us. When it encounters a threat, it should be able to take care of it swiftly and effectively creating resolution of the stressor. But in molecular mimicry, the immune system mistakes self as non-self immune-provoking molecules. It then tags this self tissue and attacks it thinking it is protecting you. This is the case with gluten and the thyroid gland. In addition to being inflammatory, a molecule of gluten looks an awful lot like the thyroid gland.  It is for these reasons that anyone with any autoimmune thyroid disease such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Grave’s disease should eliminate it from their diet. Truthfully, anyone with any autoimmune disease should avoid gluten.


The conundrum of cross reactivity.


As if it were that simple! While the data shows that gluten is an inflammatory protein and can affect susceptible people in many ways, certain non-gluten foods may cause similar symptoms or cross react. It’s molecular mimicry again. Chances are if you are gluten-sensitive you are likely to be sensitive to other foods that look like gluten and cross react. 


In other words you must stop, sit and listen to how your body responds to other grains. 


Avenin is the protein in oats for example and some people react to this protein for these reasons even though oatmeal is gluten-free. It’s all in the molecular set up and there are only 20 amino acids so the beginning structure to make it a protein can be very similar. There are also other food sensitivities that can develop that are not related to gluten but occur because the gut lining is damaged - again due to that overworked immune system. It’s crying out for a rest.

Why you want to work with a functional medicine practitioner:


If any of these sensitivities pertain to you or you think they might, it’s best to work with a functional medicine practitioner to develop a plan to give your immune system a much needed break. This can be done by doing an elimination diet and removing the common offenders that cause these sensitivities. Food sensitivity testing can be done as an assist. There are a few caveats and nuances with these actions. That’s why it’s important to work with a trained practitioner to help guide you on your journey. By making some small changes, you can improve how you feel day to day and may even reverse the disease process.


You hold the power to heal. We help you get there!

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