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Gluten-Free Diet May Lead to Poor Gut Health 06/05/2009 - Recently, the British Journal of Nutrition reported that following a gluten-free diet may be detrimental to gut health, which may also affect immune health, according to a new study from the Spanish National Research Council. The Spanish researchers analyzed the gut microflora of ten healthy subjects with an average age of 30 assigned to consume a gluten-free diet for one month.   Analysis of the participants’ feces showed that populations of healthy gut bacteria decreased following the gluten-free diet, while populations of unhealthy bacteria increased.

It has been previously documented that gluten can cause leaky gut, even without celiac disease.  Chronic gluten exposure has been shown to activate zonulin resulting in increased intestinal permeability (or leaky gut) even in the absence of celiac disease. Intestinal permeability with malabsorption has been described in celiac patients and their relatives who don’t have atrophy of the intestine on biopsy but only increased inflammatory cells.  An imbalance of intestinal bacteria has been cited as one of the main causes of leaky gut syndrome.  This study could be the beginning of discovering the missing components of the known link between celiac disease (and food sensitivities), leaky gut syndrome, inflammation, and immune health.

If you have celiac disease and/or other food sensitivities, your risk for a bacteria imbalance is high.  What can you do to protect your health?

  • Know the signs of bacteria imbalance:  abdominal pain, asthma, chronic joint pain, chronic muscle pain, confusion, fuzzy or foggy thinking, gas, indigestion, mood swings, nervousness, poor immunity, recurrent vaginal infections, skin rashes, diarrhea, bed-wetting, recurrent bladder infections, poor memory, shortness of breath, constipation, bloating, aggressive behavior, anxiety, fatigue, feeling toxic.
  • Consider
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    dietary changes: 
    Limit foods that feed bad bacteria – all forms of sugar, vinegars, and moldy foods like mushrooms.  Eat foods that promote intestinal healing, including high fiber foods rich in antioxidants (cabbage, cauliflower, beets, and onions) and omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and flaxseed.  Healthy bacteria found in yogurt (read the label to ensure that it contains live cultures) has also been recommended.
  • Think about chemical exposure:  Eliminating or reducing substances that promote intestinal permeability, such as avoiding antibiotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, pesticides, herbicides, and meat contaminated with hormones.
  • Talk to your doctor:  More research needs to be done, but it seems as though probiotics may be protective against leaky gut and bowel inflammation.  Clinical research shows that oral supplementation of probiotics enhances the immune system's ability to fight foreign organisms.  Digestive Enzymes can also help to restore intestinal permeability.  Herbs and botanicals with anti-inflammatory properties, and those that reduce congestion and/or eliminate waste may also be helpful.
  •   Leaky Gut Syndrome/Intestinal Permeability, Cathy Wong, July 23, 2007
  • Crook, William; Dean, C.; Crook, E (2003).  The Yeast Connection and Women’s Health
Author's Note:  I apologize for the confusion a poorly-worded sentence caused - it has since been removed.  Obviously, this study is very flawed - it can barely be called a study.  What prompted me to write about it was the very small glimmer of hope it gave me, and many of the people I work many celiacs feel good on the diet for a long time, then don't feel good anymore.  Many are told that it's in their heads, or they must be consuming gluten.  Come to find out, it's a yeast overgrowth due to bacteria imbalance.  The relief that I, and many that I know, have felt from the suggested steps in the article has been incredible.  I'm just glad this connection is being looked at!  I'm hopeful more in-depth, meaningful research is to come! welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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12 Responses:

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said this on
06 Jun 2009 5:11:14 AM PST
Excellent article, but frustrating too. Just getting a handle on gluten free & now something else to worry about.

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said this on
10 Jun 2009 4:45:22 PM PST
This report by Kim Hopkins is absolute nonesense. There is no such thing as a yeast which is also a bacteria. Candida is not a bacteria. Anything which follows from the logic that they are is not just suspect but dangerous. The content provided by Hopkins is extremely vague and not backed up with references (I would challenge Hopkins to provide ample evidence that consumption of meat derived from animals that have received hormone treatments results in humans with a leaky gut when compared to humans fed non-hormone treated animals).
Anyone frustrated by their celiac disease who is further flummoxed by the additional load that Hopkins implies they should take on should simply ignore the article and make something good to eat.

The study in Spain is damn near irrelevant to celiacs...10 healthy normal volunteers. Anybody here healthy and normal?

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said this on
09 May 2012 10:20:06 PM PST
I think you misunderstand. Gut bacteria help to regulate yeast in the intestines. Nobody said yeast is a bacteria.

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said this on
11 Jun 2009 6:02:56 AM PST
Informative...and my personal experience adds credibility to the ideas presented. I am Celiac and have Fibromyalgia. It has become obvious to me that my body needs supplementation at a higher level than normal for me to see improvement in symptoms. Particularly helpful are the probiotics, omegas, antioxidants, vitamins and enzymes. Of course, it goes without saying that all supplements must be gluten free!

Patty Ahrens
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said this on
11 Jun 2009 8:24:46 AM PST
I have celiac disease and am currently being treated for a systemic yeast infection. Good article! Need more info about a healthy intestinal tract.

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said this on
11 Jun 2009 9:54:00 AM PST
Just getting started with corrective measure re: celiac disease. Thank you for writing an article my non-medical mind can wrap around.

Phyllis Morrow
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said this on
11 Jun 2009 2:16:48 PM PST
This is an alarmist article that could lead celiacs to think that a gluten-free diet is not good for us. Brian's comment about candida (yeast, not bacteria) is absolutely correct. Also, we do not know what the study subjects were eating, just that they were not eating gluten. And a month-long study gives no information on how digestive systems might adapt after more than a month on a balanced gluten-free diet. The article does not explain why gluten would be necessary for 'helpful bacteria' to grow in the gut - there needs to be some good hypothesis for me to consider the validity of the research. Finally, the list of 'symptoms' is so broad and typical of the kinds of things that celiacs may experience that it is not very helpful. Nothing wrong with eating yogurt and probiotics and a lot more veggies and fruits than most folks eat, but no reason to start worrying about the gluten-free diet without some more rigorous evidence here.

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said this on
11 Jun 2009 4:52:51 PM PST
The experience of healthy subjects may have no bearing on people who go on the gluten-free diet after developing symptoms. Also without knowing what the subjects DID eat it is meaningless to know that their gut flora became more imbalanced. Many people eat more refined starches on a gluten-free diet and this alone can cause gut flora to become imbalanced, but this is not an intrinsic problem with a gluten-free diet. My family follows the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which is gluten-free but also cuts out the starches that feed the bad gut flora. Our gut flora has improved significantly on this diet and our leaky gut is healing. The GAPS diet takes into account all of the info given here about enzymes, probiotics, malabsorption, and EFAs.

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said this on
31 Jul 2009 10:39:13 AM PST
I think she brings up a good point...just because it's gluten free doesn't mean it's healthy. If we're changing our diet to be gluten-free, why not also cut out the other bad stuff...sugar, junk carbs and beef up on the better choices? After years of gluten abuse our immune systems probably need every boost they can get. Also, years of gluten damage can't be good for our flora balance, and many of us have had to take lots of antibiotics and/or steroids because we got sick more than most.

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said this on
03 Dec 2010 10:31:25 PM PST
Um, grass fed beef is by far one of the healthiest foods you can eat, and is a pretty important part of any gluten free diet.

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said this on
03 Aug 2009 8:57:24 PM PST
The listed signs of bacterial imbalance sound a lot like my pre-gluten, dairy, soy, corn starch, potato, green solanacea, and beet family free situation. (Yes, I can find food to eat but no more picnic baskets for me Boo-Boo! Lots of nuts & berries: Nuts!)

After 8 months into gluten-free and shorter periods away from the rest, my blood pressure rises and I feel different if I have eaten something that is a known issue for me.

Radical changes in diet are bound to cause some issues. Try eating a lot of plums, and see what happens. Many have reported issues early on when going gluten-free.

Before going gluten-free, we ate more, fish, fruits, yogurt, and vegetables and prepared many more meals from scratch than our friends, though we are neither vegetarian nor vegan. (meat is something I can eat.) It is possible that was preconditioning and helpful to going gluten-free. I suspect the poor absorption of nutrients, made us crave nutrient-rich food.

Avoidance of dairy, potato, and corn starch eliminates almost all gluten-free baked goods and desserts other than what little I make from scratch.

If gluten is not very digestible and lines the gut, it is not unreasonable that as it clears, digestion changes and/or other intolerances make themselves known. It may be essential to avoid an excess of sugar and refined carbohydrates that might tax the system even though the sources are 'gluten-free', aside from any cross-contamination issues, until a new intestinal flora balance is developed.

Before the casein and whey sensitivities were found, I consumed a lot of yogurt and Activia. the active cultures may also have helped more than the allergens they contained, hurt. I also noted that mushrooms in quantity did not make me feel well though they did not give an intolerance reaction and had been fine before going GF.

The study is WAY too small, of too short a duration, and with inadequate outlines of the diets used. It is a nice pilot study, though. At least someone is giving the issue some attention.

Now they can repeat it with control, celiac going gluten-free, and non-celiac gluten-free groups of different periods of time for more publications! Publish or perish!

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said this on
03 Nov 2011 4:25:49 PM PST
There is much truth to this article! 6 years into a gluten free diet for our celiac---and my husband and I have been sicker than ever!!! I was finally starting to accept that there was simply gluten in everything. Until a friend told me about the GAPS diet. Wow! Gut dysbiosis is very real and very damaging. Because you start to 'react' to just about every single food you eat, thinking there is gluten, where in reality you have severe leaky gut. So you are 'reacting' to everything, with your immune system on high alert and attack mode. GAPS and SCD provide much needed relief for those of us who need MORE than just Standard American Gluten Free.

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Why wouldn't it be gluten-free? whiskey is gluten-free. Wine is gluten-free.

Have you been tested for a stomach ulcer? That's what the pain sounds like to me. You can also get pain in your stomach from too much gas. Another possibility is GERD.

Well, you can always trial the gluten-free diet, but do it for at least six months. Act exactly as if you had celiac disease. Worry about cross contamination and learn to read labels. My own hubby did this per the very poor advice from two medical doctors 16 years ago (and we had good in...