Most of us have heard of gluten, and most of us have heard of the thyroid. But do you know how the two are related?

Gluten is a protein found in various grains such as wheat, rye, and barley (and due to cross-contamination, oats can also fall into this category if not labeled “gluten-free”).

Is gluten the devil? Not necessarily. Is gluten/wheat highly inflammatory in the United States due to how it’s grown and processed? Yes. Should you avoid it if you have thyroid disease? Yes.

In the gut, there’s a layer of cells that separate our intestinal lumen from our immune system. If proteins from food pass this barrier of cells, our immune system gets triggered and becomes activated.

To connect this idea to the thyroid, almost half of people with autoimmune thyroiditis have dilated tight junctions in their gut wall (“leaky gut”), higher counts of white blood cells within the gut lining, and shorter and thicker microvilli pointing to both a chronic inflammatory process taking place in the gut and intestinal damage.

Simply put, when gluten is consumed it is recognized by our immune cells within the gut lining, ramping up their activity and leading to the production of antibodies. These antibodies bind to gluten so that the immune system can attack and rid it from the body. Interestingly enough, sometimes the immune system will confuse the protein structure of foreign substances with the protein structure of our own tissues. In this case gluten is one of those protein structures that the immune system confuses with our thyroid tissue. So in the process of our immune system attacking the gluten, it also ends up attacking our thyroid, thereby exacerbating any autoimmune process already occurring and worsening thyroid function. This confusion of the proteins is known as molecular mimicry.

A study published in 2019 reported a group of women with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis following a gluten-free diet for 6 months. The results showed a decrease in thyroid antibodies, increased thyroid output, and increased vitamin D levels in the gluten-free group compared to those who were not following a gluten-free diet.

This study highlights the importance of how the food we eat impacts the state of our health, and in this case, the significance of what we choose not to eat.