How a Gluten-Free Diet May Impact Immunity

It is possible that the global trend to avoid wheat, dairy, and other foods that often irritate our digestion may be weakening our immunity and making us more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria?

In This Article

Considering Going Gluten-Free? Think Twice

Going gluten-free, or even lectin-free, has become a badge of honor for the health conscious, but before you join in, new science suggests there may be health benefits to continuing to eat those gluten-rich carbs.

Gluten, as well as other harder-to-digest foods, like lectins, has an immune-boosting hormetic effect on the human body.

Hormesis is based on the principle that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Eating challenging foods is one of the reasons our species has developed a mostly robust immune system. Yes, these foods act as mild irritants to the digestive system, but they also trigger a natural immune response that makes us healthier (70 percent of the human immune response originates from the microbiome inhabiting our guts).

In the same way the human immune system becomes stronger after being stressed with certain hormetic foods, plants become stronger when their systems are stressed. When humans consume that stressed plant and its benefits, it’s called xenohormesis.

Taking all the hard-to-digest foods out of your diet can leave your  immune system compromised and your body more vulnerable over time.

See also Hormesis for Digestion + Longevity: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Better Digestion = Better Immunity

Rest assured, I’m not going to ask you to eat wheat, dairy, and lectins if you are intolerant to them. Rather, I want to help you troubleshoot your digestive system and in turn build a stronger immune response.

Jumping to the conclusion that wheat, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, nightshades, oxalates, goitrogens, and lectins are bad foods is just kicking the real problem down the road.

In a 2017 study published in the Oxford University journal Nutrition Reviews, researchers studied the hormetic effect of the Mediterranean Diet. Many of the foods in the Mediterranean Diet, like gluten-rich wheat, lectin-rich beans, nuts, and tomatoes, are considered hormetins and provide protection against inflammation.

The study concluded that food stressors, as well as exposure to bacteria and viruses, were the major selective forces for the evolution of the human immune system. Hormetins like wheat, grains, nuts, beans, tomatoes, olive oil, and alcohol act as intestinal stressors that trigger an immune response (they also play a role in decreasing the risk of  numerous chronic health concerns).

While these hormetic foods can commonly cause indigestion, Ayuvedic wisdom makes the case that re-teaching the body how to consume these foods (of course non-processed, organic, and unrefined) will support immune strength, healthy aging, and years of vitality, as seen in Mediterranean countries.

See also A Super High-Fat Mediterranean Diet Boosts the Heart and Brain

The Truth about Lectins and Gluten

Lectins are a large group of proteins that are found in plants, animals, and microorganisms. Their role is to protect plants from microbial invaders, while helping plant carbohydrates bind together. They’re found in larger amounts in certain foods like beans, nuts, lentils, eggplant, potatoes, wheat, whole grains, peppers, fruits, and tomatoes.

There is no such thing as a lectin-free diet, since lectins are too pervasive in the foods we eat There are also no studies that suggest a diet loaded with lectins are harmful. The problems come when you have weak digestion and try to consume lectins. They can be hard to digest.

A 2019 study published in the journal Food, Chemistry and Toxicology debunked the potential harmful effects of lectins. In fact, the studio showed that that they can actually be beneficial in regulating a healthy immune response.

Here’s how lectins help boost immunity:

  1. They trigger an immune response by releasing several beneficial cytokines.
  2. They enhance phagocytic activity during microbial infections.
  3. Lectins can act as a vaccine to provide long-term protection against deadly microbes.
  4. Lectin-based therapy can be used to fight microbial diseases.
See also Lectins + The Plant Paradox: Dr. John’s Perspective

Several studies have also documented the benefits of eating gluten, and the potential consequences of going gluten-free.

The potential health harms correlated with a gluten-free diet include higher blood mercury levels, more bad gut bacteria, fewer killer T cells (a measure of immune strength), and a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes.   

See also The Dangers of a Gluten-Free Diet

Ayurveda and Immunity

One of the most basic Ayurvedic rules is that 85 percent of all disease starts in the digestive system. And what science has long known is that viruses primarily infiltrate the body through the protective lining of the respiratory and intestinal tracts. Healthy gut and respiratory linings are linked to robust immunity. Research has now linked the health of the gut microbiome to the health of the respiratory microbiome.

The health, integrity, and quality of intestinal skin is the body’s first defense against disease. An imbalance in the intestinal skin alters the gut and respiratory microbiomes and  compromises immunity. For these gut and respiratory microbiomes to be healthy, they depend on a specific environment. The respiratory and intestinal mucus membrane linings (epithelium or inner skin) must not be to dry, wet, irritated, or inflamed in order to propagate a healthy immune boosting stable of good bacteria.

The health of these systems starts with upper digestion. If you have a food intolerance, undigested proteins and fats enter the intestines and act as irritants to the intestinal lining, working to break down its defenses. From there, they enter the blood stream and lymphatic system, which is also linked to healthy immune response. Overwhelming the lymphatic  system, along with the intestinal lining, with undigested foods will, in short order, overwhelm the body’s immune system.

In Ayurveda, we treat the host (the environment), not the invader, when we’re troubleshooting digestive woes or poor immunity. There are too many invaders for us to create a pill for each one. But a healthy stable of beneficial bacteria can be the golden ticket. Instead of blaming foods, which are the invaders, you may have better long-term success if you bring your host environments back into balance. Meaning, before you eliminate something like gluten from your diet, work first on your digestive health.

For more on fixing your digestion, get LifeSpa’s free Digestive Troubleshooting Guide.

To get a more comprehensive understanding of how the digestive and lymphatic systems work in harmony to support immunity, download LifeSpa’s free Miracle of Lymph ebook.

For a deeper dive on how your digestive system and immunity benefit from grains, read my book Eat Wheat.

Don’t Be a Victim of the Billion-Dollar Gluten-Free Industry

We have been manipulated by the new gluten-free food industry to think of gluten as a “bad food.” Global sales of gluten-free foods are predicted to reach US$8.6 billion by 2025. Today, the gluten-free crowd is spending just north of US$5.6 billion a year. In the height of the gluten-free craze, between the years 2012 and 2013, the sale of gluten-free products rose by 81 percent . According to statistics from Satista, while the vast majority of gluten-free folks are gluten sensitive, some 31 percent  are not and choose to avoid gluten as a lifestyle choice.

There are millions of marketing dollars being spent to convince you that gluten is public enemy #1.

Thankfully, this potentially dangerous gluten-free trend is beginning to slow down. In the United States, sales of artisan bread, which is handcrafted, made with unrefined organic flour, and no additives, are on the rise. By 2024, market research predicts that global artisan bread sales will reach $US4.5 billion U.S.

It is time to take your health and immunity back by addressing digestive issues early on and preventing more severe issues to come.

12 thoughts on “How a Gluten-Free Diet May Impact Immunity”

  1. Im an Ayurvedic Doctor – clinical nutritionist – trainer and body worker. For me and my tribe gluten is NOT RECOMMENDED at all. I have Graves and Hashimotos and found these myself many years ago when I was in Functional medicine training w Dr Dhatis. Even being On a super program I cannot have gluten , dairy , soy , eggs etc and I was just testing my blood again like we do with all of our patients and nope The results show issues w these proteins even tho I am super strict as I started my path at age ten and still have issues that are showing up- this is being on a great program so in my practice getting of gluten and dairy is paramount to success period, It’s a long convo not a short one so it is a in depth study abs in going !!

    Reply
  2. I wish he would address the auto-immune issue. I have antibodies for Sjogrens and Hashemotos. I went off gluten and have no symptoms for 10 years. I’m not about to start now. I hear what he’s saying, but this could be harmful for auto-immune folk. I cannot find anywhere that he writes about this except for disclaimers. It would be helpful. I do appreciate his work.

    Reply
    • New science points to digestion and lymph congestion as a cause of autoimmunity.
      Please read my lymph and digestion ebooks for a deeper five on how to solve these issues
      Thx
      Dr John

      Reply
  3. Thank you Dr. D for helping us see both sides of this issue! I bought your book 3 season eating many years ago and am grateful for the wealth of information presented! Especially the seasonal yoga breath work! So simple, so helpful for everyone! I am a Rolf Method Practitioner and Sutherland Cranial Practiioner and your book has been a great source for me to share resources to develop the potency my patients need to do the healing work they are seeking! Do you have any suggestions for supporting the reintroduction of gluten and lectins for those who have been avoiding them in their diet?

    Reply
  4. A good article. Thank you Dr. D.
    My wife and I love our glutens and lectins. We also eat plenty of pre and pro-biotic foods so our ability to digest the glutens and lectins is enhanced. We pre-soak all of our legumes and grains 24 hours before cooking. As for breads, we have a great little flour mill (Mockmill brand) and freshly grind our flours on a daily or weekly basis, so they are not sitting on the shelf for long. As for artisan bread, it is a step in the right direction, but most of it is not whole grain, and it is baked with flour that has been milled many weeks or months previously. Better to do at home the right way.

    Reply
  5. Well, I respect your knowledge very much, and I suspect you’re right … but what does one do if one is diagnosed with gluten-sensitivity and has a chronic, multi-faceted illness? I have one alele for the MTHFR genetic quirk, which may be why, though I don’t think it is by any means a various serious issue. My inability to absorb nutrients, process fats and the presence of various toxins and pathogens have been confirmed with some rather expensive tests are probably contributing. Apparently, though, I do have a pretty good array of friendly gut bacteria species in good numbers. IDK. Should I be consulting you??? Can you say a little more about this? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Because of years of processed food, pesticides and pollutants many have trouble digesting wheat and many other foods. I see many heal their digestion and are able to eat high quality wheat in season again. Some may have created such a reactive memory to gluten that it may need to be avoided. But my point is we have an immune system because the foods challenged us and I am trying to steer folks away from taking all the challenging foods out of the diet before further immune compromise.
      Hope that helps!
      Thx
      Dr John

      Reply
  6. Dr Douillard does not speak at all to the practice of wheat being an intensively farmed crop with genetic modifications and the spraying of massive chemicals. The genetic modifications have enhanced glutens in the wheat to amounts that 50 years ago one would never find with those kinds and amounts of glutens. How can this be healthy food? In many ways wheat has become a weaponized food against humanity. I do agree that the food industry has made gluten free products that are very unhealthy and unnatural, with high amounts of carbohydrates. That in itself is a recipe for disaster.

    Reply
    • Thanks for you comment. What is interesting is that when wheat was first cultivated our ancestors selected for bigger wheat berries which were much easier to thrash and harvest. These bigger wheat grains were also higher in sugars and less abundant in gluten. The research shows that the original wheat had significantly more gluten than modern wheats. There is so much science that suggests that gluten is not the issue—hard to ignore.
      Yes I have consistently written about only eating organic artisan wheat. And yes I get it, people feel better without gluten sometimes but the problem is a broken down digestion which is linked to compromised immunity.
      Hope this helps
      Thx for your comment
      Dr John

      Reply
  7. I was diagnosed with hashimoto’s 6 months ago and tried going gluten and dairy free and felt worse.
    I found a bread made with only 4 ingredients-including organic wheat but no added gluten, and it agrees with me more than the Gluten free bread.
    I eat a little organic ice cream and no issues
    Avoiding glyphosate is important. Gluten may not be the issue in some cases

    Reply

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