Published December 3 2012
Many people with autoimmune thyroid conditions can benefit from eliminating gluten from their diet. A lot of people with these conditions already know this, as besides many of my patients experiencing the benefits of going gluten free, I also receive numerous emails from people who aren’t my patients who have told me they got their life back just from avoiding gluten. I frequently talk about how I’m not a “gluten extremist”, as I don’t believe that everyone with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis needs to eliminate gluten permanently from their diet. However, I do think that just about everyone can benefit from a gluten free trial, and some of course will need to avoid gluten for the rest of their life.
Why can eliminating gluten cause a dramatic relief in symptoms for some people, and perhaps even lead to major improvements in the blood tests? Well, if someone is sensitive to gluten, then what can happen is over a number of months and years, consuming gluten can cause problems with the intestinal lining, which in turn can lead to intestinal permeability problems (also known as “leaky gut”), and this in turn can trigger an autoimmune response. When this is the case, eliminating gluten from the diet can help to get rid of the inflammation, which by itself can help greatly with the symptoms. And if the gluten was directly or indirectly responsible for the autoimmune component of the condition, then eliminating gluten may help to improve the health of the immune system, and can potentially lead to lower thyroid antibodies and improved thyroid hormone levels.
So in the above situation, does this mean that eliminating gluten has cured the person’s autoimmune thyroid condition? Well, in some cases gluten can be the primary trigger which resulted in an autoimmune condition such as Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. When this is the case, avoiding gluten and correcting the compromised areas of the body (i.e. weakened adrenals, leaky gut, etc.) can help to get rid of the inflammation and suppress the autoimmune component of the condition.
How Long Should Gluten Be Avoided?
This is where it becomes controversial. I recommend at least going on a gluten trial of at least four to six weeks, as many people will notice a significant improvement in their symptoms during this time. However, there are a few problems with this. One problem is that you can’t rely on symptoms alone. Gluten can be causing damage to your intestinal lining but not cause any overt symptoms, and so you might not feel any different when going on a gluten free trial. In addition, if gluten is causing problems such as a leaky gut, then it can take three to six months, or even longer than this to fully correct this problem. And so going on a gluten free trial for four to six weeks is definitely a good starting point, but some will need to do this for a much longer period of time.
Why not just test to see if someone is intolerant to gluten? The problem is that testing for a gluten sensitivity isn’t 100% accurate. However, better methods are currently available for detecting gluten sensitivity problems. For example, Cyrex Labs has a test called “Wheat/Gluten Proteome Reactivity & Autoimmunity”, which seems to be a pretty accurate test for detecting a gluten sensitivity problem. However, it’s not a cheap test, and so one might want to first go on a gluten free trial to see if there is any noticeable improvement in the symptoms when avoiding or reintroducing gluten. If there is then it is obviously a good idea to avoid gluten, at least for the time being.
When someone goes on a gluten free trial and feels significantly better, it’s probably a good idea to avoid gluten for at least six months, and perhaps even longer than this. If someone has an increase in intestinal permeability that was caused by gluten, then of course they at least want to avoid consuming gluten until their gut health is restored. After this some people are eventually able to reintroduce the gluten back into their diet, while other people aren’t able to do this and will need to avoid gluten on a permanent basis.
Is It Necessary To “Completely” Avoid Gluten During A Gluten Free Trial?
I have had numerous people tell me that they are “95% gluten free”. Some will claim that they are “99% gluten free”. Either way, it’s important to understand that even a small amount of gluten can cause problems for those who are sensitive to it, and can still trigger an inflammatory response. So does this mean that going 99% gluten free won’t have any benefits? Well, it depends on the person. For example, going “99% gluten free” probably isn’t sufficient for someone who has Celiac Disease. Others might be able to get away with a small amount of gluten, while for others it will continue to result in inflammation. And due to biochemical individuality you don’t know how any person will respond, and so if someone is going to go on a gluten free trial, it is best to go 100% gluten free. This admittedly isn’t easy to accomplish, but it definitely is possible.
Going Gluten Free Isn’t Always The Answer
Although a lot of people feel much better when avoiding gluten, this isn’t always the solution to restoring someone’s health back to normal. Some people will have other food sensitivities. For others, compromised adrenal glands, mineral deficiencies, heavy metals, and/or hormone imbalances can be the main factor behind their autoimmune thyroid condition. So if someone has developed Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis due to compromised adrenal glands or mercury exposure, then eliminating gluten obviously won’t help with these problems. So as mentioned earlier, gluten isn’t the only factor which can trigger an autoimmune response.
As I also briefly mentioned above, some problems which are caused by gluten (or other food sensitivities) can’t be cured by just eliminating these allergens. For example, if someone is gluten sensitive, and if this in turn caused a severe case of leaky gut syndrome, then avoiding gluten definitely will help, but by itself probably won’t be enough to rebalance the gut flora and heal the gastrointestinal tract, as they might need additional support in the form of L-glutamine, probiotics, prebiotics etc. Plus, if the person had absorption issues due to the leaky gut which in turn resulted in mineral deficiencies, then the person will most likely need to supplement with the deficient minerals to correct this problem. So even when gluten was the main culprit behind the autoimmune thyroid condition, going gluten free by itself isn’t always the answer.
So hopefully you now understand how people with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (as well as people with other conditions) can benefit from going on a gluten free trial. And while a gluten free trial of four to six weeks might be sufficient to see some symptomatic improvement, this isn’t the case with everyone, and four to six weeks usually won’t be enough to correct any damage done by consuming gluten. As a result, one might need to avoid gluten for three to six months, or even for a longer period of time in some cases, and at the same time do things to help rebalance the gut flora and repair the intestinal lining. Plus, while many people can benefit from going on a gluten free trial, there are of course other factors that can cause someone’s autoimmune thyroid condition, and so these other factors need to be considered as well.