How gluten is related to autoimmune diseases

There are many autoimmune diseases affecting tissues, organs and systems. However, as explained by Amy Myers, a functional medicine physician, in the article Understanding the True Cause of Autoimmune Disease, all of them are diseases of the immune system. Myers was a conventional medical doctor when she was diagnosed with Grave’s disease. So she found solutions to her thyroid disorder in the functional medicine. Myers believes that the best way to deal with autoimmune disorders is by improving the immune system and bring it back to control. Eating well and  healing the gut can help in this task.

In adition, Dr. Alessio Fasano’s research have shown that autoimmune disorders are related to leaky gut. Fasano is a world-renowned coeliac expert – and coeliac disease is another autoimmune disorder. But even getting together what was discovered by Dr. Myers and Dr. Fasano, through the conventional medicine, doctors will only treat organs, because most of the time they do not see the person as a whole. If you have an autoimmune disease, you may look for a functional doctor or functional nutritionist that can help you to improve your health step by step, but there are some things that you may get to know now.

Gluten and leaky gut

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease where the three factors that play a major role in the development of the disorder are known: HLA genes, autoimmune response against tissue transglutaminase auto-antigen and the triggering environmental factor (gliadin). Even though it is an autoimmune disease with no cure, it is possible to stop and revert the damage caused in the body of someone with coeliac disease with a diet totally free from gluten. Dr. Fasano found out that three factors are present in many autoimmune diseases.

The first of these conditions is the genetic susceptibility of the host immune system to recognize, and potentially misinterpret, an environmental antigen presented within the gastrointestinal tract. The second is that the host must be exposed to the antigen. Finally, the antigen must be presented to the gastrointestinal mucosal immune system following its paracellular passage from the intestinal lumen to the gut submucosa; this process is normally prevented by competent TJ [tight junctions].*

Dr. Fasano realised in his studies that people with autoimmune diseases (as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis), also have increased intestinal permeability. The leky gut allows the passage of antigens from the intestinal flora, challenging the immune system to produce an immune response that can target any organ or tissue in genetically predisposed individuals.

Gluten has an important role in the leaky gut because the gliadin, part of the gluten protein, triggers the release of zonulin – another protein that signals the tight junctions of the intestinal wall to open up, creating intestinal permeability.

(…) Both in CD [Coeliac Disease] and T1D [Type 1 Diabetes] gliadin may play a role in causing loss of intestinal barrier function and/or inducing the autoimmune response in genetically predisposed individuals. This new theory implies that once the autoimmune process is activated, it is not autoperpetuating, rather can be modulated or even reversed by preventing the continuous interplay between genes and environment.*

Therefore, treating the leaky gut and avoiding gluten is important to treat autoimmune diseases.

Molecular Mimicry

Another reason that gluten may be related autoimmune diseases is because it is similar to other molecules in the body and our immune system may attack it by mistaken gluten with other invaders.

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 (…) the immune system sends out antibodies to detect and destroy the gluten, but since the gluten and thyroid gland looks so similar some of those immune cells end up attacking the thyroid by mistake.**

Other food proteins, as casein in dairy, have similar molecular structure to gluten. It is common people with coeliac disease react to other foods.

Reference List

*Fasano, A. Clinic Rev Allerg Immunol (2012), [online] Available at [Accessed 30 Aug. 2016].

**Myers, A. 3 Important Reasons to Give Up Gluten If You Have an Autoimmune Disease, (2015). Available at: [Accessed 30 Aug. 2016].

Myers, A. Understanding the True Cause of Autoimmune Disease (2016). Available at:,88e2c880-c04f-6de3-4e25-b27e357256feO [Accessed 30 Aug. 2016].

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