The only treatment option for celiac disease is a strict, medically-necessary gluten-free diet. However, it appears that many people are turning to the gluten-free diet to help them overcome a variety of autoimmune diseases. This article discusses autoimmune disease and why the gluten-free diet has become a treatment option many autoimmune disease sufferers are turning to. Please be sure to discuss any health concerns with your doctor. This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any condition. Please read my disclosures and disclaimers.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that up to 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease. Of those sufferers, 75 percent of them are women.
One autoimmune disease, celiac disease, affects 1 in 100 people worldwide, making it one of the most common autoimmune diseases in the world.
Out of the 100+ autoimmune diseases in the world, celiac disease is the only autoimmune condition in which the trigger (gluten) is known. Most people with celiac would concur that it’s a blessing and a curse to know this, as there is a high burden to following a medically-necessary gluten-free diet yet to know the trigger, and to be able to eliminate the trigger, can be so empowering to someone with celiac disease.
Knowing the trigger (gluten) for one of the most common autoimmune disorders in the world may hold the key for researchers looking for answers to the triggers and drivers of autoimmunity.
Is there something researchers can glean from celiac disease that may one day help others suffering from other autoimmune conditions?
In this article, I will define autoimmune disease and discuss how autoimmunity is treated. I will also discuss the celiac disease-autoimmune connection, and how the gluten-free diet has helped many people manage their autoimmune symptoms.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
When your body’s immune system detects foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, toxins, cancer cells, foreign objects, etc., it goes into attack mode by producing antibodies ordered to fight – and hopefully kill – those offending invaders. This is a very normal immune system response and why humans have been able to fight off infections, viruses and other pathogens over time.
However, in people with autoimmune disease, the immune system becomes confused and begins to attack healthy tissue vs. foreign invaders. Your immune system is unable to distinguish between healthy tissue and foreign invaders. The reason for this confusion is unknown, and in all autoimmune diseases, except for celiac disease, the trigger or driver for this immune system confusion is unknown.
Today, there are more than 100 classified autoimmune diseases, including but not limited to:
- Addison’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Dermatitis herpetiformis
- Graves’ disease
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Lyme disease (chronic)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Sjögren’s syndrome
- Type 1 diabetes
- Ulcerative colitis
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
Researchers do not understand why the immune system becomes confused and mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in people with autoimmune disease. Therefore, the trigger or cause of autoimmune disease is unknown.
However, there is one autoimmune disease in which the trigger is known, and that disease is celiac disease. As mentioned, celiac disease is the only autoimmune disease in which the trigger (gluten) is known, and many researchers are looking to celiac disease to understand the triggers of autoimmunity as it relates to the long list of other autoimmune conditions.
Is Celiac Disease an Autoimmune Disease?
Yes, celiac disease is an autoimmune disease whereby the body’s immune system, triggered by the consumption of gluten, becomes confused and attacks the healthy tissue surrounding the small intestine.
When the healthy tissue surrounding the small intestine is attacked, it impairs a person’s ability to fully absorb nutrients, leading to nutritional deficiencies, inflammation, autoimmune disease, and sometimes more serious, chronic disorders such as diabetes and cancer.
Treating Autoimmune Disease
The only treatment option for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. However, you might be wondering how are other autoimmune diseases treated, if at all.
Researchers suggest that identifying external drivers in autoimmunity is the key to treating autoimmune diseases. However, identifying these external drivers is a “difficult but not impossible task.”
Common triggers could be food, infections, gut health, hormones, toxins and stress.
For example, research suggests that the driver of rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease might be an abnormal immune response against gut bacteria or microbiota. Some research suggests that viruses can confuse the immune system and thereby trigger autoimmunity. We also know genes play a part in triggering autoimmune diseases.
Knowing these external triggers can help someone potentially deter autoimmunity, although the research isn’t clear exactly how (except in people with celiac disease, where completely eliminating gluten can put celiac disease symptoms into remission.)
For example, we know food and gut health are two potential environmental triggers for autoimmunity. Can eating an anti-inflammatory diet, particularly a gluten-free diet, help?
Much research, along with anecdotal evidence, is pointing in the direction of yes, an anti-inflammatory diet free from gluten and other inflammatory foods, can aid in deterring and managing autoimmunity beyond celiac disease.
The Thyroid Connection
In 2018, researchers found that the gluten-free diet “may bring clinical benefits to women with autoimmune thyroid disease.”
Additional research found an increased prevalence of thyroid dysfunction in patients of celiac disease, with hypothyroidism affecting 5.8 percent of the celiac patients.
These same researchers also found “ample evidence of a strong association between celiac disease and several immune mediated diseases, including autoimmune thyroid disorders, type 1 diabetes mellitus, primary biliary cirrhosis, inflammatory bowel diseases and autoimmune adrenal failure.”
However, the researchers are keen to conclude that there is still “little evidence to support a role for a gluten-free diet in reducing the development of associated autoimmune disorders in patients with celiac disease.”
One autoimmune disease, dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), is known as “celiac rash” or “celiac of the skin.”
DH causes chronic, itchy rashes that present in the form of bumps or blisters on the skin, particularly on one’s elbows, knees, buttocks, lower back and scalp.
Because DH is a skin manifestation of celiac disease, the trigger of DH is gluten, and people who implement a gluten-free diet find their DH symptoms lessen and often disappear.
The Future of Autoimmune Disease Research
While the science related to the triggers, drivers and treatments of autoimmune disease is still evolving, and there is still so much researchers need to figure out and learn, a few things remain true.
There are stories upon stories of people managing their autoimmune symptoms by eating a gluten-free and anti-inflammatory diet.
Dr. Susan Blum, author of The Immune System Recovery Plan, talks about how she healed her body from Hashimoto’s disease by eating gluten free and following a nutrient-dense diet.
Andrea Beaman, a well-known holistic health expert, healed herself from thyroid disease through a gluten-free and nutrient-dense diet too.
Dr. Terry Wahls, who like many physicians, once focused on treating her patients’ ailments with drugs and surgical procedures, became a believer of the power of food and its role in healing autoimmunity after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Modern medicine failed her and her disease debilitated her to the point that she was relegated to a tilt-recline wheelchair and was told she’d never walk again.
Dr. Wahls adopted a nutrient-rich, gluten-free, paleo diet and reversed her symptoms so much so that she was not only able to walk again, but also found the strength to take an 18-mile bike ride. She talks about her recovery in her bestselling book, The Wahls Protocol.
In this 2017 article from Prevention Magazine, eight women talk about dietary changes that helped them control their rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
One woman (Carolyn) says her RA symptoms “go away” when she eats clean and avoids dairy and gluten. Another woman (Meredith), says an Autoimmune Protocol diet (AIP), which is a paleo-based diet, reduced inflammation and helped her control her RA symptoms. Another woman (Erin) cut out gluten, dairy and refined sugar and found it helped her control her symptoms too.
The list goes on and on of people sharing stories of how dietary changes helped them manage their autoimmune symptoms.
There Is No Magic Pill
If you are one of the millions of people suffering from an autoimmune condition, it couldn’t hurt to look at the food on your plate to help you manage your symptoms.
Healing your gut, avoiding highly-inflammatory foods, and eating a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet, may help you manage your symptoms and even put your disorder into remission.
Work with an integrative nutrition coach or functional medicine doctor or dietician to help you come up with a plan of attack for you.
Taking out potentially harmful foods and adding in proven nutrient-dense foods just may be the key to treating and managing autoimmune diseases in the future. Regardless, a change in your diet may help you feel better, reverse disease in your body (like it did for Dr. Wahl’s), and/or put your symptoms into remission (like it did for me).
Remember, no one heals in a straight line, and you may not get instant results upon going gluten free. Just as disease takes years to manifest itself in your body, it can take years to reverse the damage.
There is so much to learn about diet and its role in triggering and driving autoimmune disease. However, all signs point in the direction that gluten may hold the key to treating autoimmune disease beyond celiac. Future research will hopefully continue to guide us in understanding gluten’s role in autoimmunity and unlocking the causes and treatment of these chronic disorders.