The Dangers of a Gluten-Free Diet

In recent years, the gluten-free diet has become incredibly fashionable. However, 98% of the population is NOT diagnosed with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, or wheat allergy. For the majority of us, going gluten-free might actually do more harm than good!  

In This Article

Gluten-Free Diet: Fad or Fix?

lifespa image, frankenwheat, ancient vs modern wheat, wheat stalk, gluten

In recent years, the gluten-free diet has become incredibly fashionable. However, 98% of the population is NOT diagnosed with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, or wheat allergy. For the majority of us, going gluten-free might actually do more harm than good!  

Before you go gluten-free, please read this article. 

Gluten + Wheat Build Immunity 

The Hygiene Hypothesis, or hormesis, is the idea that our immune system developed over millions of years from eating hard-to-digest foods that may irritate the intestinal lining. That irritation from anti-nutrients that protect the seed, nut, grain, bean of fruit provide the gut stimulation responsible for gut immunity which makes up 70% of the body’s total immune response. 

germ virus immune system support

Emerging science shows removing these gut irritants may severely compromise our immune systems. While nightshades and lectins, like gluten, phytic acids, and other anti-nutrients, are irritants and hard to digest, they have also been found to be extremely therapeutic.13 

Just taking wheat, dairy, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, or fruits out of the diet without addressing the underlying imbalance in digestion that has created the food intolerance is like sweeping the real problem under the rug. The symptoms could return aggressively in the months or years to come. 

We recommend "Benefits of naturally Occurring Food Toxins": https://lifespa.com/benefits-naturally-occurring-food-toxins/

Gluten Decreases Bad Bacteria + Supports Beneficial Bacteria 

In one study, 10 healthy 30-year-olds were put on a gluten-free diet for one month. Analysis of their food intake and stool indicated their numbers of healthy gut bacteria decreased. More surprisingly, the numbers of unhealthy bacteria increased. 

Based on their findings, researchers concluded that a gluten-free diet, even for just one month, could alter microbes and compromise the immune system.1 

Gluten Boosts Immune Response 

In another study, involving nine healthy individuals, five were given three grams of concentrated wheat gluten per day for six days, and four followed a gluten-free diet. The gluten group saw a significant increase in natural killer cell activity.  

This is significant, as NK cells are our bodies’ frontline defense system—incredibly important in individuals with autoimmune conditions and cancer. The group on a gluten-free diet saw no increase in NK cell activity.2 

Gluten Lowers Cholesterol 

Many studies link a diet rich in whole wheat to lower cholesterol levels. Wheat fiber, specifically, has always been assumed to be responsible for this health benefit. 

lifespa image, erasing cholesterol

However, in one study, folks who ate a diet high in fiber and gluten saw lower triglyceride levels than the control group, who ate diets high in fiber.31 This suggests that gluten, not wheat fiber, may be the factor responsible for lowering triglyceride levels. 

Gluten-Free Diet Raises Mercury Levels 

In one recent study, mercury levels were compared in three groups of people: 

  1. Celiac patients on a gluten-free diet 
  2. Celiac patients who had not yet started a gluten-free diet 
  3. Non-celiac patients who ate wheat regularly 

The group of celiac patients that had been on a gluten-free diet had FOUR TIMES the amount of toxic mercury in their blood than the other groups.4 

As we can see, while removing gluten from one’s diet may seem like a healthy idea, there may be unintended consequences. 

Another study of more than 10,000 children in 14 countries in Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia compared those who grew up on farms to those who grew up in suburbia or the city. They found that children who grew up on farms were:8 

  • 54% less likely to have hay fever 
  • 57% less likely to have nasal allergies 
  • 50% less likely to have asthma 

Researchers found that farm kids were exposed to more dust, mites, and respiratory irritants. Rural kids had more white blood cells (WBCs) than urban kids, suggesting the immune system does indeed respond to stimulation. 

When we take digestive stimulation out of the diet by removing foods that are somewhat harder to digest, we may also remove an immune-boosting stimulus that we have developed to benefit from over millions of years. 

caution sign human digestion

The concept that our overall health and immunity is determined and boosted by irritants and certain toxins is called the hygiene hypothesis. This theory is gaining much traction: certain harder-to-digest foods, like wheat, may actually turn out to be important immune-boosters! 5 

Gluten-Free Diet Increases Risk of Heart Disease 

In a Harvard study that followed more than 110,000 adults from 1986 to 2010, the relationship between gluten intake and heart disease was evaluated. In this study, they found that the difference in heart disease risk was about the same for the folks who ate the most gluten and those who ate the least amount of gluten—suggesting that the amount of gluten you ate does not play a role in heart disease risk. 

When the researchers dug deeper and adjusted the study for the amount of refined grains that were eaten in the high-gluten group, the heart disease risk soared. Refined grains lack heart-healthy fiber, which abounds in healthy whole wheat. 

lifespa image, hedonistic vs. eudaimonistic, graphic of people making hand heart symbol

When the researchers adjusted their findings for intake of refined grains vs whole grains, the group that ate the least amount of gluten had a 15% higher risk of heart disease. 10 

We recommend "Harvard Study Finds Gluten Free Diet Bad for the Heart": https://lifespa.com/landmark-harvard-study-finds-gluten-free-diet-bad-heart/

Gluten-Free Diets Increase Risk of Diabetes 

In a 2017 Harvard study evaluating the diets of almost 200,000 adults for some 30 years from 1984 to 2013, the results were striking. In this study, in the participants who were in the highest range of gluten intake (around 12 grams of gluten per day), a 13 percent reduction in type 2 diabetes was observed.11, 12 

The average intake of gluten was about 6.5 grams a day, and those who ate less than 4 grams of gluten per day had the highest rates of type 2 diabetes.  

The major dietary sources of gluten were pastas, cereals, pizza, muffins, pretzels, and bread.11, 12 

Gluten-Free Nutrition Concerns for Celiac Patients 

For celiac patients, gluten-free diets have been linked to nutritional deficiencies, and even weight gain. Numerous studies demonstrate that gluten-free products are poor sources of minerals (such as iron), vitamins (such as folate, thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin), and fiber.6 

One study on adolescents with celiac disease found that following a gluten-free diet led to greater nutritional imbalances, weight gain, and obesity, compared to the control group.7 The key to solving these issues is to fix the cause—likely found in a simple digestive imbalance. 

For more compelling research (over 600 studies!) on this topic, check out my book Eat Wheat: A Scientific and Clinically-Proven Approach to Safely Bringing Wheat and Dairy Back Into Your Diet. 
eat wheat cover

Join me as I take you on a journey of reintroducing wheat and other hard-to-digest proteins back into your diet. Eat Wheat reveals hidden science on the benefits of wheat and dairy and helps you navigate around food toxins. You will also learn how to flush congested lymphatics linked to food intolerance symptoms.  

Ultimately, you can retrain your body to digest wheat and dairy again, and enjoy the digestive, immune, and overall health benefits!

We recommend "Do Low Gluten Diets Increase Type 2 Diabetes Risk?": https://lifespa.com/do-low-gluten-diets-increase-type-2-diabetes-risk/

References

  1. https://lifespa.com/benefits-naturally-occurring-food-toxins/ 
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16377907 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10204832 
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25802516 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448690/ 
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257612/ 
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9822315 
  8. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1508749#t=article 
  9. http://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/a-grassy-trend-in-human-ancestors-diets/
  10. http://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j1892
  11. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/135/Suppl_1/A11 
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3023594/
  13. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170309120626.htm  
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31 thoughts on “The Dangers of a Gluten-Free Diet”

  1. Going gluten free doesn’t mean eating the gluten free processed food crap that is marketed to those who think they can’t live without gluten containing foods. Those foods DO increase the issues you write about, but avoiding gluten and most grains does not. In addition, gluten feeds viruses that are responsible for much of the inflammation in people’s bodies. Highly recommend The Medical Medium and Life-Changing Foods books by Anthony William.

    Reply
    • I am very concerned; a psychologist on Twitter has convinced my daughter to go gluten free for the whole family; her son and she have neurological problems already…she will not listen to me at all…slams the phone down..this is as any smart person will say, “no” to unless one’s medical practitioner says and instructs you need to do this! The processing is extremely dangerous. Arsenic and mercury are in the Trails and essentially a great percentage of the Killers in the Trails for us.

      Reply
  2. What I KNOW for sure is that if I eat normal wheat products for several days in a row I feel awful: irritable, negative, hopeless, angry, and with brain fog. My skin gets oily and I break out sometimes and I’m 62! I LOVE wheat products and was raised (by a RD) on them. I eat decent quality as well. But it’s enough to entirely change who I am; for the worse. I was tested negative for celiac over ten years ago.
    Theories are interesting Dr., but a person has to listen to their body.
    Blanket proclamations that turn into recommendations, ie. ” Eat Wheat”, without individual analysis are irresponsible and unprofessional.

    Reply
    • Maybe you tested negative for Celiac Disease 10 years ago, that doesn’t mean you do not have the celiac gene or you have gluten sensitivity which would create those problems you mention. I tested negative for Celiac as well, but then I did a genetic test and showed gluten sensitivity and celiac gene. What’s funny is that I can eat gluten and it will not make me feel sick at all. I started a gluten free diet 6 months ago and still have the original symptoms (no stomach issues) I had 6 months ago and is actually worse. Their is to much to learn from both sides and for now we are all Gunea Pigs. ;-(

      Reply
  3. Apparently, some of the above commenters didn’t read the book. So sad; you’re angry for nothing. Being tied to your beliefs / experiences doesn’t leave much room for growth or discovery. Dr. Douillard is not telling people to jump right in and eat gluten-containing / hard-to-digest foods immediately. He gives very compelling reasons to address the root causes of one’s digestive difficulties….far more important in the ensuing years, whenever those more serious issues might occur. Rectifying the REASONS for our digestive difficulties then gives us the choice, not the imperative, to avoid or embrace any number of foods.

    Reply
  4. in regard to the dr. j.d. and d. perlmutter debate, i congratulate both for this fine service.
    i still cannot believe that the blood sugar issue is not covered here in regards to wheat
    consumption.
    as someone previously mentioned, the glyphosate issue also is not being discussed.
    i believe that one should monitor their blood sugar levels before they even bother with
    a gluten sensitivity test. not being gluten sensitive does not mean it is ok to eat wheat.
    listen to your own body first. the dr’s a distant second.

    Reply
  5. Dr. Douillard,

    I love wheat and I love any research that suggests that it may not be the evil food product so many people think it is. The gluten-free diet has become a bit of a fad and I am tired of gluten being blamed all the time.

    THAT SAID, I am a scientist and a professor, and I spend an enormous amount of time discussing with students what conclusions the data warrant and what conclusions stretch the data inappropriately.

    I love your approach, because you speak to the need that so many people have for scientific evidence. I worry, however, that the credibility of the work you cite, and the conclusions that you draw from that work, will diminish in the eyes of scientists if you use language that strays too far from the data. For instance, is it really appropriate to say that a “gluten-free diet raises mercury levels”? Assuming the investigators conducted a carefully controlled laboratory investigation (which they seem to have in this case), they still tested only people diagnosed as celiac. Moreover, you cite just one study, when the replication and reproducibility of findings are really needed for people to feel confident in them.

    To repeat, I love what you are doing! I hope that my advice might help you reach a broader audience.

    -Liz Pinel, Ph.D.
    Professor of Psychological Science at the University of Vermont
    Lead Researcher of the University of Vermont’s study on Interpersonal Ayurveda

    Reply
  6. Yes I agree that a gluten free diet is dangerous but only if you replace gluten with gluten free processed food products. For a lot of people including my children it is not a fad diet but a necessity for health. It’s obvious that the studies that you refer to about the mercury levels, those people were eating high amounts of rice flours in processed GF foods. We take the Paleo approach and replace our gluten with fresh veggies and fruits. I would like to see a healthy diet factored into the evidence instead of one crappy diet replacing another crappy diet.

    Reply
  7. Dear Dr. John,
    I grew up in rural Italy and was accustomed to eating and enjoying a wide variety of foods. Fast forward to me moving to the US to a completely different food scene. I do not remember having digestive issues growing up but seemed to develop some kind of sensitivity as I moved to the US. As a student of Ayurveda, my digestive complaints faded away once I focused on improving the health of my digestive fire instead of going on restrictive elimination diets. Fast forward again to a couple of years ago when my son became really sick with PANDAS and was unfortunately put on a very restrictive diet (no gluten/no diary and more). His symptoms got progressively worse until I saw the light and re introduced everything into his diet and went back to following the very basic Ayurvedic wisdom. Interestingly enough, as he was prescribed the very descriptive diet I decided to show solidarity and remove those foods from my diet as well. Sure enough, within a mere few weeks I became hopelessly constipated, anxious and unable to sleep. Luckily, thanks to your teachings I realized right away what was going on….my good bugs were starving. As I reintroduced all the different foods my digestion and elimination normalized again. Also, this might be of interest to you. With PANDAS, children show a high amount of anti neuronal antibodies in their blood. According to some research my son’s health should have completely deteriorated when we re introduced gluten and dairy against our doctor’s medical advice. Instead, the opposite just happened. My son’s anti neuronal antibodies disappeared and he is on his way to heal from this autoimmune disease. Of course, his healing protocol included many other things (good sleep, rest, rejuvenation, strengthening agni and more) but I believe that re introducing all the foods he was meant to eat played a huge role not only physiologically but also psychologically. If wheat and gluten were damaging for the brain then we would not have seen such a dramatic improvement in his inflammatory marker and anti neuronal antibodies. Thank you for sharing this knowledge with all of us!

    Reply
  8. I will not go back to eating gluten. I will not go back to chronic diarrhea and exhaustion, along with debilitating depression. I do not have high blood sugar. There were probably things that brought about the gluten sensitivity. I had a mouth full of metal fillings, now removed, I had taken tetracycline for at least a year for acne. Those things may have started the problem. But eliminating gluten was the answer. I eat nuts, occasionally potatoes, and some dairy and during the winter, oatmeal. I haven’t eaten beef or pork in decades for spiritual reasons. With the quality of slaughtered animals these days, I still wouldn’t eat them although I have to make sure I get enough protein, sometimes protein smoothies from whey. I was eating Trader Joes gluten free bread for a while but it give gas. I use quinoa occasionally and sometimes wild rice dishes. I now use lots of spices and herbs that didn’t have in my diet. The processed gluten free products are problematic. Gluten foods these days are from genetically modified wheat. I am sure your book has merit, but I don’t have the time or inclination to go through an experiment on my digestive health. Eliminating gluten about 8 years ago had a profound improvement on my health and the chronic dark moods and anxiety. As far as mercury and other heavy metals are concerned, I give blood at Red Cross one to two times a year. I also had the metal taken out of my mouth and replaced with the new porcelain and other inert fillings. I am sure you mean well and I enjoy your articles and work. The breath exercises have been the best for me.

    Reply
    • Thank you, I have gone and going through similar experiences with gluten.I so wish I could go back to regular bread but every time I felt well and tried to eat bread I had to stop immediately. Doctor John’s video is true generally , full of priceless information from his long experience but the advice on gluten is not for everyone most of all people with genetic and long term digestive issues.The same with ani nutrients, phytic acid , lectins , oxalic acid.From my personal experience I will always have problems with them ,and so a lot of people.

      Reply
  9. Dear John
    Does Glyphosphate concern you ?? Most Commercial Wheat Crops are sprayed with Glyphosphate prior to harvest, as they say if dries out the wheat prior to harvesting .. This is a common practice, in most wheat producing countries ..
    Once the Glyphosphate is attached to the wheat grain after the plant is sprayed it cannot be removed, so it then becomes part of the whole grain or wheat flour, unless certified organic wheat .. you would understand that Glyphosphate destroys human micro biome, it acts just like an antibiotic and strips the host beneficial gut flora ..

    Reply
    • In my opinion a lot of these “facts” are wishful thinking. Saying gluten is great for you because it produces an immune response and activates T-cells *might* be beneficial based on *very occasional* consumption, but chronic exposure to gluten is more likely to harm your mucosa beyond any benefits.

      You could say the same thing about Glyphosate, how it’s so beneficial because it “stimulates” your immune system. It stimulates your immune system so much that you actually can get this extra beneficial cancer, which “stimulates” your immune system even more!

      Besides, gluten breaks down to incomplete proteins which attach to our opiate receptors in the brain, making it *highly* addictive (similar to casein, the milk protein). So maybe the doc is just high on bread and doesn’t wanna face his addiction ; )

      Reply
    • Hi JK,

      Dr. John suggests organic wheat for those reasons. Finding a local supplier is always best when possible, but can be difficult.

      Best,
      LifeSpa Staff

      Reply
  10. Congratulations, Dr. Douillard. I have someone in my family who went hardcore keto. The person lost a LOT of weight and thought they were getting very healthy. I got word the other day that they were diagnosed with “Celiac’s Disease.” I started to talk about it, and was shut down saying that medical science has deemed it as genetically inherited. They have also become hardcore Christians so will not hear of anything having to do with evolutionary process. I feel bad for my family member. They are highly over achieving and over achieved at going without carbs. Lesson learned.

    Reply
  11. Hi Dr. Douillard,
    Thank you for sharing this important video. I’ve followed you for years and love your work. In this video you urge us to think things through and practice some critical thinking when making choices. Listening to our bodies and paying attention to what we eat and what we digest from the mainstream marketing machine. We have epidemic levels of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental illness and frankly self-centeredness from, in my opinion, not being conscious of what we consume and digest (food, media, tech, etc). I’m so happy that you passionately nudged us to wake up and be conscious and alert. Of all the videos, podcasts, lectures, and books you’ve shared over the years, this video brought me to tears. Thank you for your passion and commitment to serving humanity through ancient wisdom and modern science.

    Reply
  12. I’m a little curious by the timing of this article – in the 3 season diet, which I started following last spring, this is the time of year to refrain from grains and dairy, etc. This approach helped me a lot last year and is helping this year, too.

    Can I assume you don’t mean for us to work on adding wheat into our diet during this time of year?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Great observation, Pax,

      Yes, gluten is a seasonal food and should not be consumed as a main part of the diet in Spring. Dr. John in fact recommends cutting wheat and grain-products from the diet in the Spring, as it would generally no longer be available this time of year.

      Best,
      LifeSpa Staff

      Reply
  13. I have a question regarding my gluten-free diet. I suffer from hypothyroidism for 3 years already, my specialist told me one thing that would help my thyroid would be going gluten-free. I usually cook my own meals meaning everything that I was once cooking with grains that contain gluten, I replaced them with healthy alternatives of flour for example rice, chickpeas, corn, or buckwheat flour.

    What do you think? Does it really help my thyroid in any way? Cause now I’m getting so mixed-up information that I really don’t know what to believe anymore.

    Reply
    • Hi Ioana,

      Thanks for reaching out about this. As it sounds like you are eating more natural, whole food options instead of over-processed options, you are avoiding much of the risk that comes with a gluten-free diet.

      In regards to helping your thyroid, consider scheduling a consultation with Dr. John so he can work with you to develop a plan complementary to your plan from your doctor.

      You can learn more about scheduling a consultation with Dr. John here: https://lifespa.com/about-lifespa/ayurvedic-clinic/

      Best,
      LifeSpa Staff

      Reply
  14. Thanks for your article. I have been gluten free for the last 15 years. When I try to gently reintroduce it back into my diet-1 slice of bread- I get skin blisters that leave scars-the reason I stopped originally. This has been a problem for me for the last 40 years.. I’ve also been allergic to milk since I was a baby. I’m trying to improve my digestion with some of your products but I can’t seem to digest wheat still. Any recommendations or am I just genetically unable to digest wheat?

    Reply
    • When I re-introduce wheat in my diet, I start with organic, whole-grain einkorn which we have in Europe. Or in the US I believe you have spelt more available. These are both “ancient” or wild variations of wheat that are a lot easier to digest (you can do your own research).

      Modern wheat is heavily modified – even if it’s not GMO, it’s been cultivated, and in most cases – sprayed. And don’t forget that unless you get a pure flour and bake it yourself, store-bought breads/bakeries often add enzyme complexes, stabilizers, etc.

      As you can see, there are already a lot of things in wheat that can be triggering your condition which have nothing to do with gluten itself: pesticides, chemicals, flour additives, grain modifications.

      Reply
    • Helanna, are you using organic wheat? I’m wondering if you’re reacting to the
      glyphosate used or possibly GMO wheat. Best wishes!

      Reply
  15. Thanks for the great article! I was diagnosed with Hashimotos a couple months ago and was told to cut gluten out completely. Having a hard time with this, as I have never felt sensitive to gluten, and I even got a food sensitivity test done and showed no sensitivity to it. I was wondering if you had any advice on eating gluten while dealing with thyroid issues. (Just to be clear, when I eat gluten, it’s normally a high quality sourdough from a local market. I never eat processed breads). Thanks so much!

    Reply

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