Gluten, Genetic Risk Factors, and Lupus

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“Is there gluten in this?” ???? People with celiac disease have 3x the risk of developing lupus, too. But, it can be hard to tell the conditions apart.

Gluten is a group of proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. It acts like a glue and is responsible for the doughy, sticky consistency of bread.

Check out this list from the Celiac Disease Foundation on sources of gluten to learn more.

For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance, their bodies react to these proteins. Common symptoms include:

  • inflammation
  • digestive problems
  • pain
  • skin problems
  • fatigue


People with gluten intolerance and/or celiac disease are more likely to develop or already have other autoimmune diseases. This includes systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE.)

Because of this connection, gluten-free diets are shared online as a way to reduce flares or reduce disease activity. However, there are also many articles on the internet claiming that that gluten causes lupus. Most researchers currently consider this to be unlikely and untrue. Though, research that tracks children, including diet, into their adult years is challenging to complete.


A gluten <> lupus link?

Gluten intolerance and celiac disease are frequently found along with lupus. In one survey, the percentage of people with autoimmune diseases and celiac was as high as 30% (with the general population having a rate of autoimmune disease ranging from 3-9.4%). However, most scientists do not believe that gluten itself causes lupus. 

Instead, people with these conditions might share genes or gene combinations that make them more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, allergies, and intolerances to otherwise harmless proteins. The length of time that a person is exposed to gluten doesn’t appear to have an effect, which supports this theory. 

A gluten-free diet also did not prevent autoimmune disease in a 2002 study. But, that doesn’t mean that gluten-free diets don’t have value to people with lupus.


The benefits of going gluten-free

For people with gluten intolerance or celiacs, gluten can cause flares, worsen symptoms, and trigger the onset of disease. Gluten is also known to affect the microbiome, the colonies of bacteria that call our gut home. This complex network is highly connected to lupus and other autoimmune diseases. Because it does affect these systems, a gluten free diet can potentially help people with lupus who also have gluten intolerances or sensitivities.


Distinguishing lupus from gluten intolerance

Gluten intolerance can have both gut and non-gut-related symptoms. It can even be mistaken for SLE. because the inflammatory markers and symptoms can look almost exactly the same. This makes sense as both are caused by similar immune system issues firmly rooted in genetics.

In fact, this 2004 study provides a case where three different people presented symptoms that were diagnosed as lupus, but were really gluten sensitivity.

If gluten intolerance or sensitivity look similar to lupus, how can you tell the difference?

Going on a gluten free diet will help with a gluten intolerance, but will have only a limited effect on lupus. Also, if you don’t have gluten intolerance, a gluten free diet is very restrictive and won’t help very much with lupus, so it’s important to know.

Lupus medications will have a lesser effect on gluten intolerance because they aren’t treating the core issue. 

Talk to your lupus treatment team if you suspect that you may be gluten intolerant, have lupus, or potentially both. Figuring out what is going on with your body is the first step to finding the medical regimen – and diet – that is best for you. 

Read here for advice on how to make sure that your doctor gives you the help that you need. And remember that in the end, it is nutrition that counts the most when thinking about diet and lupus.

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