Gluten, Inflammation and Leaky Gut in Rheumatic Diseases

Rheumatic patients often find inflammation decreases after eliminating gluten.

The existence of gluten sensitivity has been debated for many years due to the lack of a definitive testing method for a non-celiac form. However, more clarity on this issue could arise as the result of a presentation at the 23rd United European Gastroenterology Week in Barcelona, Spain, given by a research team headed up by Giovanni Barbara at the University of Bologna, in Italy. This team’s findings suggest that high levels of an inflammatory protein, called zonulin, is linked to inflammation and, while known to be elevated in celiac disease, is also produced by gluten-sensitive individuals.

“Zonulin is an inflammatory protein first discovered by Fasano and his team in 2000. It helps regulate leakiness in the gut by opening and closing the spaces or “junctions” between cells in the lining of the digestive tract. Zonulin is triggered by harmful bacteria, and offers important protection to the body: If you accidentally eat a food contaminated with salmonella, you rely on zonulin to help trigger diarrhea and flush out the bugs.”

Allesio Fasano, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, remarks, “No human being completely digests gluten. And in a small percentage of us, that undigested gluten triggers the release of zonulin.” The Italian research team’s findings concur with the discovery of high levels of zonulin in both celiacs and glutensensitive individuals and that those in the latter group who responded to a gluten-free diet were also found to have a genetic predisposition to celiac disease. Fasano further states, “This molecule is extremely important in a lot of illness, from Type 1 diabetes to other autoimmune diseases. Many illnesses link back to loss of barrier function in the gut.” 

NPR, Eating and Health, December, 9th, 2015: A Protein In The Gut May Explain Why Some Can’t Stomach Gluten

In an MSNBC News Nation interview, on April 22nd, 2014, Dr. Allesio Fasano also reported that Ibuprophen May Contribute to Celiac Disease, mentioning that the use of this class of over-the-counter and prescription anti-inflammatory drugs can also lead to destruction of the protective mucous barrier of the gut lining. This barrier provides protection from infections but, when breached, leads to an inflamed and leaky gut.

Many rheumatic patients take ibuprophen on a regular basis for relief from painful inflammatory symptoms. New medications that can do the same job, without harming the protective lining of the intestinal walls, are needed, especially in light of the growing awareness that autoimmune patients seem to benefit from maintaining a healthy gut.