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DOES A GLUTEN-FREE DIET HELP THYROID HEALTH?

Dr. Rae Osborn 18 Aug 2022
DOES A GLUTEN-FREE DIET HELP THYROID HEALTH?

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There is some evidence that eliminating gluten from the diet can be helpful for some people who have thyroid problems. Read on to learn about gluten, a gluten-free diet, and if this helps the thyroid gland.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is the name for a group of proteins that are found in wheat and some other grains such as rye and barley. Glutens are most common in wheat grains, making up 90% of all the proteins. The most important of these glutens are gliadin and also glutenin. 

Foods derived from wheat include most kinds of pasta, noodles, breads, breakfast cereals, malts, and granolas. In some cases, manufacturers may add gluten to food since it acts as a good thickening agent, and helps hold foods together.

Is Gluten bad?

Gluten is not harmful to everybody, in fact, it is only a small percentage of people who definitely must avoid consuming food with gluten. These are people who have celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune illness in which your body mounts an immune response against the intestines. Gluten can trigger this response in people who have celiac disease. The worst protein of the glutens is gliadin. The body actually overreacts to this protein and causes changes in the intestinal villi, which are the structures important for absorbing nutrients. The way that the immune system reacts to gliadin is discussed below.

  • The gliadin peptides are broken down and transformed into a type of immunogenic lysine.
  • This particular lysine can trigger an immune reaction in some individuals.
  • The immune reaction involves T cells being activated which in turn stimulates the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
  • The result of the inflammatory response is damage to the villi in the intestine, which compromises the ability to digest and absorb nutrients correctly.

Symptoms of Celiac disease

Celiac disease has certain symptoms, which are listed below.

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating and gas
  • Sore abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss

Diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease

Celiac disease is diagnosed by blood tests and intestinal biopsy. Treatment involves following a gluten-free diet and taking vitamin and mineral supplements.

Gluten sensitivity or intolerance

Some individuals may be sensitive or have an intolerance to gluten even though they do not have celiac disease. This is also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Unlike the autoimmune reaction of celiac disease, the intolerance causes some type of upset in the gut.

Symptoms of gluten sensitivity are as follows:

  • Bloating and gas
  • Pain in the stomach
  • Stomach upset
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Joint pain and fatigue

The treatment for gluten intolerance is to avoid consuming foods with gluten in them.

Only a doctor can diagnose if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

What is the Thyroid?

The thyroid is a gland of the endocrine system that is found in your neck. It has the shape of a butterfly and is responsible for secreting various hormones that are important in the body for regulating your metabolism. The thyroid secretes the following hormones:

  • Triiodothyronine, also known as T3
  • Thyroxine, also known as T4

These two hormones work together to regulate multiple organs including your heart rate and how your body uses energy.

Thyroid conditions

There are several conditions of the thyroid. These are described below.

  • Goiter: a goiter is when the thyroid enlarges.
  • Hyperthyroidism: this is the condition in which your body overproduces thyroid hormones.
  • Hypothyroidism: this is the condition in which your body underproduces thyroid hormones.
  • Thyroiditis: an inflammation of the thyroid.
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: sometimes referred to as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis; this is an autoimmune condition of the thyroid causing a specific inflammatory reaction.
  • Thyroid nodules: nodules are lumps that sometimes appear on the thyroid gland.
  • Thyroid cancer: although it is quite rare, cancer can occur in the thyroid.

Does Gluten harm the Thyroid?

There is scientific evidence that eliminating gluten from the diet is helpful for people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In this illness, the body produces antibodies against two proteins in the thyroid, namely thyroglobulin and thyroid peroxidase.

Studies have indicated that people who followed a gluten-free diet did reduce the concentration of antibodies in the blood. These were the specific antibodies that attack the thyroid gland. The gliadin in gluten is thought to also increase levels of these same antibodies, likely worsening the condition.

It is also possible that patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis also have celiac disease which has not yet been diagnosed. In fact, some studies have found that some patients do have both conditions at the same time.

Symptoms of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis

Hashimoto’s disease has a number of symptoms listed below.

  • Dry skin
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling more cold than normal
  • Muscle pain and weakness
  • Constipation
  • Mood changes such as increased irritability and depression
  • Having trouble concentrating and having memory issues
  • Hair loss and brittle nails
  • A puffy face
  • A swollen neck

Diagnosis and treatment of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis

Diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is based on blood tests measuring thyroid peroxidase antibodies. High concentrations of these indicate the person has Hashimoto’s disease. Patients are treated by being prescribed the hormone L-thyroxine, which needs to be taken for the rest of their lives.

Is a Gluten-free diet safe?

Gluten-free diets can cause a person to be deficient in certain nutrients such as magnesium, selenium, vitamin D, iron, and calcium.

This suggests that a gluten-free diet is not advisable for everyone but rather for individuals who have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Always consult a doctor first before changing your diet.

Conclusion

A gluten-free diet may be beneficial for individuals who have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis; however, there is no evidence that a gluten-free diet, in general, improves your thyroid health. A gluten-free diet is also important for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. A gluten-free diet is not risk-free as it can cause nutrient deficiencies. This is why you must check with your doctor first on what would be best for your particular situation taking into account your health status.

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About the Author:

Dr. Rae Osborn has a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Texas at Arlington. She was a tenured Associate Professor of Biology at Northwestern State University where she taught many courses for Pre-nursing and Pre-medical students. She has written extensively on medical conditions and healthy lifestyle topics, including nutrition. She is from South Africa but lived and taught in the United States for 18 years.

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