Gluten Stimulates Immune Responsein People Without Celiac Disease

A component of wheat gluten stimulates an innate immune system response in people with or without celiac disease, says a report in the British medical journal Gut.

Researchers from Spain performed gut biopsies on six patients without celiac disease. Then they used an innovative technique in which they challenged those gut biopsies with fragments of gliadin, a component of gluten, and watched for an interleukin-15 response. Interleukin-15 (IL-15) is a marker of activation of the innate immune system.

Stephan, a doctoral candidate in neurobiology and a blogger at Whole Health Source, explains:

The innate immune system is an old system (evolutionarily speaking) that predates the antibody-producing “adaptive immune system” and nonspecifically defends against pathogens.

Biopsies from 5 out of 6 patients showed an IL-15 response to at least one gliadin fragment. The implication is that the majority of people have an immune response to wheat, even if they don’t have Celiac disease. The reason they aren’t diagnosed as Celiac patients is they don’t have circulating anti-gliadin antibodies (and they presumably don’t yet have severe structural damage to their intestinal tract as judged by biopsy or endoscopy), but as the paper shows, people can react to gluten without producing antibodies via the innate immune system.

This is the first time that an IL-15-mediated innate response to gliadin is described in individuals without celiac disease. The authors of the study believe that “gluten elicits its harmful effect, throughout an IL-15 innate immune system response on all the individuals. This innate response is found in both patients with and without celiac disease.” However, in patients with celiac disease, an adaptive response to gluten also takes place.

Study reference: Bernardo D, Garrote JA, Fernandez-Salazar L, et al. Is gliadin really safe for non-coeliac individuals? Production of interleukin 15 in biopsy culture from non-coeliac individuals with gliadin peptides. Gut, 2007;56:889-890.

Melissa’s comments:

I have written for quite some time about non-celiac gluten sensitivity and how gluten sensitivity is far more common in the general public than most people realize. This is a small study, but if the results are confirmed in additional research on a larger scale, the findings are HUGE. It may mean most people are reacting to wheat gluten in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic. The six people in the study had symptoms including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hiatal hernia, colic, abdominal pain, diarrhea and chronic gastritis. How many people have these conditions and take medications for them instead of considering that the bread, pasta and other wheat products they are eating may be the culprit behind their problems?

In my nutrition practice, I see a lot of people who don’t have celiac disease but know they have gluten sensitivity because they test positive on anti-gliadin blood tests or stool tests. This research seems to suggest that even some people who don’t test positive on anti-gliadin antibody tests still may be reacting to wheat gluten and that looking at anti-gliadin antibody levels doesn’t give the whole picture of how the immune system responds to gluten. Very interesting stuff!

Wheat was not part of the original human diet, so it isn’t surprising that our innate immune system, which developed early on, reacts to it.

© Copyright 2008 Melissa Diane Smith

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