The Gluten-Free Diet’s Impact on Immune Health

Bacteria within the human gut usually have a symbiotic relationship with the immune system. Gut bacteria, or flora, help promote the early development of the gut’s immune system, stimulate the production of antibodies and fight harmful bacteria. A healthy immune system is largely dependent on how the gut bacteria are functioning. When there is a disturbance in this relationship, the immune system may not respond appropriately, resulting in Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and even allergic reactions.

For patients with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the gut has a damaged relationship with the immune system. When people with celiac disease eat gluten-containing foods, their immune system responds by damaging the small intestine, and therefore inhibiting the body’s ability to appropriately absorb nutrients. Because of this, it is easy for these patients to become malnourished. For patients with gluten sensitivity, the symptoms are similar, but the gut is not damaged.

The gluten-free diet is necessary for patients with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity; however, emerging research shows that this diet may discourage some beneficial bacteria from populating in the gut. This can have a direct impact on immune health.

There are a variety of different counseling modifications RDs can make to accommodate for this change in gut health for patients with celiac disease. Some studies indicate that increasing intake of gluten-free whole grains can improve the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut. RDs working with these patients should also recommend a balance of prebiotics and probiotics, including:

  • Live yogurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kefir
  • Asparagus
  • Garlic
  • Onion

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