Call me ignorant.
Until January 2014, I had never heard of gluten.
One fine day that month, actually, it was my birthday, my doctor told me to cut out gluten for 3 months. This would help my immune system reset, she said. And that would help improve or reverse some of my symptoms.
I didn’t resist. I needed to believe this. I had arrived in a desperate place. Willing to try almost anything to make me feel better. Except for, well, living without my thyroid.
I had just two questions. What are gluten? (Answer: a protein in wheat, rye, and barley.) Followed by: So, what am I to eat now? I used to eat sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, sometimes even for dinner. And if I didn’t eat sandwiches, I ate pasta. My favorite.
That birthday, I did not have my cake.
But it was worth it.
Only 3 days later, I got a glimpse of what health could feel like.
The daily cramping I’d experienced for almost 20 years (related to an IBS diagnosis), was gone. It had simply disappeared.
So, I wholeheartedly continued my gluten-free adventure. Other (Graves’ disease related) symptoms improved gradually. And and many disappeared. My thyroid markers and thyroid autoantibodies looked better and better.
In all fairness, removing gluten wasn’t the only thing I did for my health. It was only a piece of the puzzle. But I believe, it was (and remains) a big piece of my puzzle.
Of course, I can never proof that. It’s just anecdotal.
So, let’s see what the literature has to say.
The connection between gluten and Graves’ disease
Graves’ disease and Celiac disease
One study showed that if you have Graves’ disease, you´re far more likely to also have Celiac disease. Over 4.5x more likely than the general population.
Celiac disease is, like Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition. It’s a special one. Because it’s the only autoimmune condition for which the trigger is known; gluten!
In people with Celiac disease, gluten triggers the creation of autoantibodies that attack and destroy the lining of the small intestine.
But how can you have Celiac disease if you don’t experience any gastrointestinal symptoms?
Well, in fact, more than 50% of people with Celiac disease don’t experience symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and gassiness.
Instead, you could experience symptoms like a foggy mind, depression, headaches, migraines, ADD (attention deficit disorder), anemia, eczema, joint pain, or osteoporosis. And you’d never suspect Celiac disease to be potentially linked to this.
Graves’ disease and gluten sensitivity
Even if Celiac disease is ruled out for you, you could still have non-Celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
NCGS or simply “gluten sensitivity” is a relatively new term in the research literature.
It refers to a reaction when you ingest gluten. Symptoms are similar to those of Celiac disease, but commonly less severe. As with Celiac disease, gluten sensitivity can affect all your body systems and result in a range of different symptoms. (Fasano, 2014, p. 18)
Gluten sensitivity is far more common than Celiac disease. Gluten expert Dr. Thomas O’Bryan mentioned that autoimmune disease (such as Graves’ disease) is ten times more common in those with either Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity than the general population (1, 2).
So, why is this connection between gluten and Graves’ disease relevant?
The connection between gluten and Graves’ disease could (partly) explain why your immune system attacks your thyroid gland.
This is based on the theory of molecular mimicry. An accepted theory behind autoimmunity in general.
Molecular mimicry means that the molecular structure of two different things resemble each other. So, they can be easily mistaken for one another.
In your case, it’d work as follows.
The molecular structure of gliadin, a protein found in gluten, resembles the molecular structure of your thyroid tissue.
Now, if your immune system perceives gliadin as an unwanted intruder, it fires every time you eat a bagel, cookie, pizza or some pasta. It’s attacking gliadin. And since it’s unable to differentiate between gliadin and your thyroid tissue, it also fires at your thyroid.
It’s a case of mistaken identity.
Hence, if your immune system has an issue with gluten, you may reduce the attack on your thyroid by “simply” removing all gluten from your diet.
If gluten is a big enough piece of your health puzzle, you could even achieve a ceasefire on your thyroid.
How do you find out if gluten is a problem for you?
Eliminate gluten from your diet for a specific time
The gold standard to find out if you’re sensitive to gluten is by fully removing it from your diet for a specific time. Do this for at least 4 weeks. This will give your immune system some time to calm down.
Meanwhile, take note of any changes you’re experiencing. Are you noticing improvements to any of your symptoms? Maybe even symptoms you don’t pay much attention to anymore.
After 4 weeks (or longer), reintroduce gluten and notice your body’s reaction.
Reintroduction of foods after a substantial period of time makes it generally easy to find out if these foods agree with you or not. If they don´t, you’ll likely have a much stronger reaction to them.
Get tested for gluten sensitivity
Alternatively, if you prefer to see things black-on-white, you could choose to get tested.
Just keep in mind that not all tests are created equal. Commonly, only one fraction of gliadin (a protein in gluten) is tested for, alpha gliadin. But it turns out, other fractions of gliadin and other proteins in gluten can also be problematic.
Only testing for your reaction to alpha gliadin increases your chance of a false negative result. This means the test says you have no issue with gluten, whereas in fact, you do. And you don’t want that.
Cyrex Laboratories offers a test (array 3) that seems to be most accurate in detecting gluten sensitivity. It assesses sensitivity to twelve different proteins. According to Cyrex Laboratories, these are the top twelve proteins that people react to in wheat.
You can read more about testing specifically for Celiac disease here.
Just give it a try
Imagine that gluten is a piece of your health puzzle. Maybe even a big piece, like it is for me. It’s totally worth giving gluten-free a try, right?
And, let’s face it, what’s 4 weeks if you’re serious about regaining control over your health and your life?