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Gluten Fuels Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

Autoimmune diseases still leave many doctors in the dark and patients with many question marks. One of the most common disorders of the immune system results in chronic thyroid inflammation Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

The connection between Hashimoto and gluten

People with autoimmune disorders have one thing in common: gut problems. Because 80 percent of the immune system is located in the intestine, more precisely in the small intestine. The more severe the autoimmune disease, the more pronounced the so-called leaky gut syndrome – a permeable intestinal wall that allows incompatible food particles to pass unhindered from the digestive tract into the bloodstream.

Holistic practitioners like Dr. Datis Kharrazian and Chris Kresser from the USA are now drawing the therapeutically promising connection between gluten intolerance and the autoimmune thyroid inflammation of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

In doing so, they draw medical attention to the immune system rather than limiting thyroid treatment to hormone replacement therapy.

Autoimmunity – When the body attacks itself

Before we turn to the connection between chronic thyroid inflammation Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and gluten intolerance, let’s clarify what autoimmunity actually is.

Autoimmunity is a process in which our immune system attacks endogenous tissue, i.e. our own organism. Normally, the job of the immune system is to protect us from bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections.

To do this, the immune system produces antibodies that accumulate in the blood and act against the invaders before they can make us sick.

Autoimmunity, on the other hand, can be compared well with the situation when the foreign tissue is rejected by the body after an organ transplant. The tissue of every human being consists of individual molecules that the immune system recognizes as endogenous and distinguishes them from foreign cells.

If a donated organ doesn’t closely match the recipient’s tissue, the immune system steps in and destroys the foreign organ.

If autoimmunity is present, similar processes take place in the body as in organ rejection. The body’s own tissue is not recognized by the immune system and instead – as if it were foreign tissue – it is attacked and gradually destroyed by self-produced antibodies.

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis – An autoimmune disease

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system directs antibodies against its own thyroid. The detection of these antibodies is then also an important diagnostic marker of this disease.

The thyroid tissue is constantly being destroyed by the antibody attack. The result is both chronic inflammation and a massive thyroid hormone deficiency, i.e. hypothyroidism.

The small, butterfly-like thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck and is of great importance for various metabolic processes. It produces the two thyroid hormones T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (L-thyroxine).

The pituitary gland (a pea-sized endocrine gland in the brain) releases the thyroid-stimulating hormone TSH so that the thyroid gland knows when to produce how much of these hormones. The amount of TSH circulating in the blood signals to the thyroid whether T3 and T4 need to be produced or not.

The more TSH there is in the blood, the more thyroid hormones the body needs.

However, if the thyroid gland is no longer able to produce enough hormones due to hypofunction, the TSH level will continue to rise. Hypothyroidism is therefore not only diagnosed based on low T3 and T4 values but also on the basis of an elevated TSH value.

The higher the TSH level rises above the normal value, the more pronounced the hypothyroidism is.

T3 and T4 are responsible for controlling our metabolism. Without thyroid hormones – in children – neither mental nor physical development would be possible.

In adults, a lack of thyroid hormone impedes a wide range of bodily functions. Heartbeat and brain performance can slow down, as can energy utilization from food. In addition, a lack of thyroid hormones has a negative effect on body temperature, the female cycle, and weight.

The symptoms of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are correspondingly diverse: tiredness, listlessness, increased sensitivity to colds, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, dry skin, brittle hair, and brittle nails, hoarseness, forgetfulness, memory loss, irritability, depression, PMS, heavy periods, weight gain and muscle and joint pain are among the most common complaints.

Hypothyroidism is treated in conventional medicine with hormone replacement therapy. Hashimoto’s patients have to take artificial hormones in pill form their whole lives to avoid further complications (including goiter, heart failure, and coma).

Meanwhile, integrative physicians are increasingly appealing to people with autoimmune disorders to have themselves examined for food intolerances. The grain protein gluten in particular is under general suspicion of causing a destructive immune response against the thyroid gland in Hashimoto’s patients.

Gluten – Attack on the immune system

Gluten is a protein mixture of glutenin and gliadin that, in combination with starch, is a component of wheat, spelled, rye, barley, oats, emmer, Kamut, and einkorn grains. Wheat contains the most gluten at around 50 percent.1

In combination with water, gluten results in a tough, sticky mass and is therefore also called gluten protein. This gluten protein forms the ideal basis for baking bread. For our intestines, however, it is a disaster! In our digestive tract, gluten binds to the wall of the small intestine. Digestive problems and immune disorders are now inevitable.

Bred high in gluten for industrial baking processes, modern wheat in particular contributes to the fact that more and more people are affected by gluten intolerance, which in turn is associated with various secondary diseases. Gliadin in particular is considered to be the main cause of this health misery.

“Each of us is more or less gluten intolerant”

Scientists have found that certain gliadin components bind to gut receptors and disrupt the tight connections of the gut wall. These connections normally hold the small intestine cells together and prevent food particles from leaking through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream.

If gliadin destroys the connections, the intestinal wall becomes permeable. One speaks of the so-called leaky gut syndrome. Incompletely digested food components, but also toxins can now enter the bloodstream unhindered.

The body sees the invaders as attackers. And as always, when he feels attacked, he runs his usual defense program and answers the “attack” with an immune reaction.

The immune reaction – which already takes place in the intestine – is initiated with the production of certain defense cells (T-cells) against the mobile and tissue-bound gliadin. Anti-gliadin antibodies (AGA) are formed in a second immune reaction.

Over time, this immune reaction against gluten leads to significant inflammatory processes in the intestine and the simultaneous progressive destruction of the villi of the small intestine. Anyone who suffers from chronic inflammation should therefore eliminate gluten from their diet immediately.

Doctors like Daniel Leffler from Harvard Medical School, therefore, warn not only celiac sufferers against gluten:

Gluten is largely indigestible for everyone. Each of us is more or less gluten intolerant.
People with elevated anti-gliadin antibodies are at greater risk of developing lymphatic cancer and autoimmune disorders, particularly Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid condition.

Gluten increases the need for thyroid hormones

A study from Rome shows that Hashimoto patients with gluten intolerance need 49 percent more T4 hormones for a TSH value in the normal range than patients without gluten intolerance.

After an eleven-month gluten-free diet, the T4 requirement of the gluten-sensitive test subjects for an acceptable TSH value was largely identical to that of the comparison group. These results further illustrate the link between gluten and autoimmune disorders.

It is true that Hashimoto patients do not automatically suffer from celiac disease. However, it can be assumed that most of those affected have a certain degree of so-called gluten sensitivity.

Gluten creates an overreaction in the immune system

Whether it’s gluten sensitivity or full-blown celiac disease, people with autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis have destructive consequences for an overactive immune response.

In the case of an existing autoimmune disease, the immune system is already overactive. With gluten-containing foods in the diet, the gluten-sensitive body is in a permanent stress situation.

The constant immune reaction to the intolerable substance gliadin ultimately aggravates the autoimmune disease.

The release of antibodies against the gluten protein is not only discharged in the intestinal tract and thyroid tissue but can also cause inflammation in other parts of the body, which explains the different symptoms of gluten intolerance.

While some people experience gluten-related inflammation in their joints, others experience skin disorders such as rashes and rosacea. Many also feel the symptoms of inflammation in the brain, feeling foggy in their thinking, suffering from mood swings, anxiety, and memory loss.3

Gluten and the Thyroid – The Big Molecular Mix-Up

The double immune reaction against the gluten from food and against the thyroid tissue is due to the molecular similarity between the protein-building block gliadin and the thyroid cells.

When gluten enters the bloodstream through the permeable intestinal wall, the immune system interprets this as an attack and releases antibodies. These antibodies not only fight off the intolerable gluten protein gliadin but also put the similarly structured thyroid tissue into an inflammatory state, as a result of which tissue is destroyed and hormone production is throttled.

When people with autoimmune thyroid disease eat gluten-containing foods, the thyroid is immediately under attack.

Gluten intolerance – blood tests are not accurate

Unfortunately, standard blood tests do not provide reliable results for thyroid patients who want to be tested for gluten intolerance.

Antibody tests usually only target a specific part of gluten, namely alpha-gliadin. Various other gluten components such as omega-gliadin, gamma-gliadin, wheat germ agglutinin, etc., which can also be responsible for an immune reaction, are not taken into account.

In less severe cases of gluten intolerance, blood tests fail all the more and thus misjudge inflammations that are already active in the body.

dr Kenneth Fine, medical director of the innovative laboratory EnteroLab, believes that stool analyzes are much more accurate. This specially developed test method for gluten intolerance detects antibodies that are produced in the intestine before they enter the bloodstream.

Fine found that one in three Americans is gluten intolerant. – The rate in Europe is likely to be similar. – Out of 10 people, 8 would have the genetic predisposition for gluten intolerance.

In particular, people with HLA-DQ genes are affected by gluten intolerance or celiac disease.

Accordingly, an incorrect diagnosis and missed nutritional recommendations can gradually worsen the health of people with Hashimoto’s disease.

In this context, if one realizes that grains containing gluten, such as wheat, are the number one staple food in the western world, we are dealing with a subliminal simmering health catastrophe.

It is not without reason that Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is one of the most common autoimmune diseases. As a Hashimoto patient, it is therefore definitely worth trying gluten-free yourself.

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis – When the immune system goes on strike

Another difficulty in clinically proving gluten intolerance in people with autoimmune diseases arises when the immune system is already so weak that it can no longer produce enough antibodies.

This is another reason why gluten intolerance tests in Hashimoto’s patients often turn out falsely negative. Antibody levels can be so low that tests do not show them, even though tissue-damaging immune reactions are secretly taking place.

Overall, people with autoimmune thyroid disease are therefore advised to avoid gluten at all costs, regardless of whether tests show an active antibody response or not. Anyone who eats gluten-containing foods despite a confirmed autoimmune disease unnecessarily further affects their immune system.

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis – Gluten-free diet required

Since both gluten sensitivity and the direct connection between Hashimoto and such a gluten intolerance are difficult to prove using standard blood tests, conventional physicians are often critical of a gluten-free diet when the celiac disease has been ruled out.

However, more recent studies speak a different language. The link between autoimmune diseases (particularly Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) and gluten intolerance is too obvious to ignore. Autoimmune experts like Dr. Datis Kharrazian, therefore, advise people with chronic thyroid inflammation in particular to follow a strict gluten-free diet as the first and most important step in getting this immune disorder under control.

Because gluten acts as a powerful initiator for an immune response in most Hashimoto’s patients, regardless of a diagnosed celiac disease.

Experience shows that the hormone levels and the symptoms of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis improve significantly in the majority of those affected by a gluten-free diet. Consistency is crucial, however. Living a little gluten-free is just as unrealistic for success as being a little pregnant.

The immune response triggered by any gluten consumption can last up to six months. Even the smallest bite of gluten-containing food causes a long-lasting release of antibodies by the immune system against the thyroid tissue and other body cells in those affected.

The occasional piece of cake or pasta at Italian restaurants quickly negates the therapeutic success of a gluten-free diet.

Living gluten-free in everyday life

Now the worrying question may arise as to whether deficiency symptoms will not occur without cereals such as wheat and co. The fact is that cereals containing gluten do not contain any nutrients that cannot also be obtained from gluten-free foods. Brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, amaranth, sweet potatoes, and potatoes are nutritious and safe filling alternatives to gluten-containing grains.

Hashimoto – Holistic Measures

Of course, gluten isn’t Hashimoto’s only problem. And a gluten-free diet is not the only measure needed to get the disease under control. While conventional medicine now only prescribes thyroid hormones and otherwise stands idly by when the thyroid gland goes down, holistic and naturopathic measures can do a lot to help Hashimoto come to a standstill and thus be free of symptoms.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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