Gluten is everywhere — in bread, cereal, pasta, salad dressings and more — making it hard to avoid. But millions of us are sensitive to the sticky protein found in wheat and used as a binder in many processed foods.
That’s a problem, especially when it comes to thyroid health. “The molecular structure of the protein portion of gluten closely resembles that of the thyroid gland,” explains Ronald Hoffman, MD, medical director of the Hoffman Center in New York City. “So when your body produces antibodies to attack gluten, as it does when you’re gluten-sensitive, it also attacks thyroid tissue.”
What’s more, gluten sensitivity is on the rise: “In the past 30 years, wheat has been genetically modified to have a higher gluten content. So many more people are having trouble,” says holistic medicine specialist David Brownstein, MD, author of Over Coming Thyroid Disorders (Buy on Amazon, $29.95). And adults with an underactive thyroid are 12 times more likely to have a gluten allergy than those with a healthy gland, according to a study out of Finland.
When we eat gluten, levels of certain body chemicals are elevated. This can cause microscopic perforations in the intestinal lining — a condition called leaky gut. Food particles leak out, and our body treats them as foreign invaders, “triggering a massive reaction of immune cells,” explains Aviva Romm, MD. An overactive immune system not only causes troublesome inflammation, but “it may actually lead to an autoimmune response where the body attacks its own thyroid.”
Complicating matters: Most doctors treat women with a slow thyroid without realizing gluten is to blame — and when that’s the case, medications that would otherwise be effective don’t solve the problem.
Adds Harvard-trained doctor Akil Palanisamy, M.D.: “As many as 90 percent of women with gluten sensitivity have no GI symptoms, which makes. diagnosing it more confusing.” (Click through to see how at home food sensitivity tests can help you suss out a sensitivity). Fortunately, the strategies below can help you determine if gluten is problematic for you and help you begin to heal your thyroid.
“The best way to see if gluten is behind your slow thyroid is to remove it from your diet for 30 days, then reintroduce it,” says thyroid specialist Kent Holtorf, MD. To do: Replace white bread, white pasta and most “white carbs” with natural and minimally processed gluten-free carbs like beans, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. Though some white carbs — such as white sugar and white rice — are actually gluten-free, they’re known to spike blood sugar and cause a type of internal inflammation that can dampen thyroid function, notes Harvard-trained weight-loss expert Sara Gottfried, MD.
If gluten is slowing your thyroid, eliminating it will clear up the issue. In fact, a groundbreaking study in Italy found that adults suffering from a gluten allergy completely reversed an underactive thyroid when they cut out gluten. “If you feel awesome off gluten, that’s a good sign it might be a problem for you,” Dr. Romm says. “If you reintroduce it and notice headaches, joint pain, fatigue, digestive upset or weight gain, it’s probably wise to minimize or eliminate gluten.”
Eat healing foods.
Add coconut oil. In gluten-sensitive people, gliadin (a gluten protein) causes inflammation that leads to leaky gut and worsening symptoms. “The gut lining is largely fat-based, so repairing it takes fat,” says Dr. Palanisamy.
Coconut oil helps rebuild the lining and cuts inflammation. Plus, its fatty acids boost thyroid function and rev fat burn by 50 percent.
Load up on fiber.
People who eliminate gluten from their diet sometimes end up short on top sources of fiber (like whole-grain wheat products) — a factor that has been shown to increase the risk of blood-sugar swings that further drain the thyroid. Experts recommend slowly working your way up to consuming 25 grams of fiber a day from foods like fruit, legumes, nuts, and vegetables.
Try a supplement.
Proteolytic enzymes break down gluten to help you avoid symptoms if you accidentally ingest it, says Dr. Palanisamy. To get the benefits look for a supplement that contains Tolerase G, an enzyme proven to break down up to 86 percent of gluten in the stomach. One that fits the bill: Swanson Ultra Gluten Rid, (Buy on Amazon, $19.32).
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Heal Your Thyroid.