Nearly 50 million Americans live with an autoimmune disease — a disorder in which the body’s immune system adversely attacks healthy body tissue. There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders; common ones include psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis.
Managing symptoms caused by autoimmune disorders can reduce immune system activity. Some research suggests that diet can affect symptoms, but avoiding gluten is not always beneficial or necessary.
“Some studies have suggested there is a link to autoimmune disorders and sensitivity to gluten, but the research just isn’t strong enough for a definitive answer to assume that avoiding gluten will help,” says Ursula Ridens, registered dietitian with Sharp HealthCare.
“That being said, individuals who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, also an autoimmune disorder, must avoid gluten completely as strong research shows eating foods with gluten causes painful gastrointestinal distress, may lead to nutrient deficiencies and increase risk for osteoporosis,” she says.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Oats are naturally gluten-free, but may become contaminated during processing and packaging. Because of this, many sources advise those on a gluten-free diet to be cautious when buying oats and ensure the label specifies “gluten free.”
Where gluten is found
Examples of foods that commonly have gluten are bread, pastries, cereals, pasta, pizza dough, crackers, cookies and soy sauce, unless specifically buying varieties that are made with alternate gluten-free ingredients like corn and rice. Foods that may have hidden sources of gluten include salad dressings, deli meats and ice cream.
Gluten and autoimmune disorders
Gluten does not automatically cause problems in everyone, nor does it negatively affect everyone with autoimmune disorders. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, up to 25 percent of people living with psoriasis may also be sensitive to gluten. Those with sensitivity may have inflammatory reactions such as joint pain or skin flare-ups after eating food that contains gluten.
Since inflammation goes hand in hand with autoimmune disorders, and gluten may increase inflammation in some people, eating a low-gluten or gluten-free diet can be a strategy to try and see if symptoms improve.
Going gluten free
Since there isn’t a test for gluten sensitivity, it’s hard to know if following a gluten-free diet will help conditions associated with autoimmune disorders. Trial and error seems to be the best approach to see if avoiding gluten helps lessen the severity of symptoms caused by autoimmune disorders.
“Following a gluten-free diet is a very personal decision; it takes quite a bit of effort and doesn’t come without risk,” explains Ridens. “When removing gluten from your diet, it’s important to replace it with an alternative grain to avoid becoming deficient in fiber, carbohydrates and various micronutrients. Alternate grains include quinoa, millet, buckwheat and rice.”
If you think you’re sensitive to gluten, it’s important to talk with your doctor before following a gluten-free diet. The Sharp Outpatient Nutrition Counseling Program provides one-on-one nutrition counseling with registered dietitians at four convenient locations throughout San Diego County.
For the media: To talk with a Sharp expert about autoimmune disorders and gluten intolerance, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.