Gluten: Making an Enemy out of Your Immune System

The immune system

No matter how tasty foods like modern-day bread, pasta, and other grains can be, we just weren't designed to digest them. Why? Because they contain gluten.

Gluten is a protein commonly found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley that acts a "glue" in food. It's essentially what holds cake and bread together. But it may not be something that our bodies can safely digest. When gluten remains undigested in our digestive tract, its inflammatory property can trigger the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine. We know this as celiac disease.

But celiac disease can be a tricky beast to pin down. A simple blood test isn't always enough to confirm if someone has the disease. (We'll get into why in a bit.) Also, the symptoms of celiac disease go beyond intestinal discomfort, making it hard to determine if a specific problem is related to celiac or something else. Symptoms of celiac disease can be found pretty much anywhere, ranging from your teeth to your brain.

Gluten and celiac disease can be troublesome, but just how far can gluten-related complications go?

 

A Psychotic Case of Celiac Disease

To get a better idea of the nasty effects gluten can have on the human body, we're going to consider a case in which a woman developed psychosis seemingly out of nowhere. A few evaluations confirmed iron-deficiency anemia, vitamin deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D, significant weight loss, and autoimmune thyroiditis. No family history of psychiatric diseases. No significant response to antipsychotic drugs or levothyroxine, the latter of which was supposed to improve her low levels of thyroid hormone.1 So what's up?

The doctor who ultimately diagnosed the woman with celiac disease found key information in the deficiencies, the weight loss, the thyroid disease, and in the poor response to levothyroxine. All were enough indication of malabsorption and autoimmunity to suggest celiac disease. The doctor administered blood tests and small-bowel biopsies for celiac disease. The blood tests came back positive then negative while the biopsies came back positive then negative. How is that?

 

Blood Tests for Celiac Disease Aren't Always Trustworthy

The thing with celiac disease blood tests is that they might not be accurate. Those with celiac disease might produce an abnormally high number of antibodies intended to combat gluten. Those antibodies are what the blood test looks for.

But those antibodies aren't just ever-present. They're only in your bloodstream if your immune system has enough power to make them. That is, the antibodies can only be detected in the blood when gluten is present in the body.

There are a few reasons why the blood test for celiac disease can come back with a false negative:

  • Antibodies aren't present at the moment
  • The person is a nonresponder, i.e. can't make antibodies against gluten
  • The disease hasn't done enough damage to trigger the creation of antibodies
  • The immune system is so damaged that it can't create the antibodies even if it wants to

This is why any negative blood tests for celiac should be followed by a biopsy if possible. The biopsy will allow for a more accurate understanding of how gluten affects someone's small intestine, especially in the case that the body has yet to or can't create the antibodies against gluten. A biopsy may not be always possible, however. In this case, a decision should be made on clinical grounds only.

However, it's important for anyone concerned about celiac disease to get tested before making the change to a gluten-free diet. This will ensure that a doctor will be able to tell if the issue is celiac disease or another gluten-related disorder.

 

The Many Faces of Celiac Disease

The only way to know for sure if your symptoms are the result of celiac disease or not is to get tested for it. Symptoms of celiac disease and associated diseases include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Anemia
  • Anxiety
  • Ataxia
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Autism
  • Bloating
  • Bloody urine
  • Brittle nails
  • Canker sores
  • Chronic headache
  • Crohn's disease
  • Delayed puberty
  • Depression
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Diarrhea
  • Down syndrome
  • Eczema
  • Enamel defects
  • Fatigue
  • Fluid retention
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Gastrointestinal hemorrhage
  • Hair thinning
  • Hepatitis
  • IgA deficiency
  • Infertility
  • Irritability
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Joint pain
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Lane-Hamilton syndrome
  • Liver disease
  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Lymphocytic gastritis
  • Malabsorption
  • Malnutrition
  • Migraines
  • Miscarriage
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nosebleeds
  • Obesity
  • Oral cavities
  • Osteopenia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Paleness
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Psoriasis
  • Psychosis
  • Seizures
  • Sjogren's disease
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Thyroid disease
  • Turner syndrome
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Vertigo
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Williams syndrome1 2 3

Lots of stuff, right? Lots of things that, on their own, don't necessarily mean you have celiac disease. If you have many of these symptoms or otherwise suspect that you might have celiac disease, consult your physician so you can work out what your next steps will be.

In addition to the above symptoms, it's important to keep an eye out for any vitamin or mineral deficiencies, as they may be a sign of malabsorption and leaky gut syndrome, both of which are strongly linked with celiac disease.

Leaky gut syndrome is pretty much what it sounds like. It happens when your intestinal lining becomes weakened and perforated. This leaky gut lining could prevent your body from absorbing nutrients correctly.4 It can also allow microbes and bits of undigested food out of your digestive tract and into your bloodstream where they don't belong. This can confuse your immune system and trigger an autoimmune response ranging from thyroiditis to, you guessed it, celiac disease.

 

A Gut-Friendly Diet is a Gluten-Free Diet

If you want to support your fight with leaky gut so it can heal from any damage linked to celiac disease, you'll need to remove gluten from your diet. Without any gluten in your body, your immune system won't be triggered to attack your intestinal lining. This will give the lining the chance to rebuild itself.

But a gluten-free diet alone likely won't optimize your gut. We need the right microflora in our gut to ensure that our digestive system is healthy and functional enough to absorb the nutrients in our food. A proper diet with all the necessary vitamins and minerals supported by the right probiotics, like Probiotic Synergy™, could support our digestive system and improve our mood.

If you are dealing with a nutrient deficiency or an autoimmune disorder that may be related to celiac disease, speak with Dr. Sergey Kalitenko to receive support for and information about your concerns. You can schedule a consultation at his Brooklyn office (718-382-9200) or his Great Neck office (516-467-0253).

 

Sources:

  1. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMcpc1514473
  2. https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/understanding-celiac-disease-2/celiacdiseasesymptoms/
  3. http://www.beyondceliac.org/celiac-disease/related-conditions/
  4. https://draxe.com/4-steps-to-heal-leaky-gut-and-autoimmune-disease/

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