Is a Gluten-Free Diet Right For Your RA?

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

How a Gluten-Free Diet May be Harming You

Many people are choosing a gluten-free diet as a way of attaining better health. Individuals with chronic illness, such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn’s, and other autoimmune diseases are increasingly trying a gluten-free diet to control their symptoms. Some even say it has cured their condition, or at the very least helped them be symptom-free. It sounds wonderful, but is this type of diet completely without risk?

making bread dough

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. Wheat includes semolina, spelt, farro, graham, and others. Avoiding gluten can be tricky as it is included in many food products, sometimes in hidden ways. Avoiding bread is not enough — gluten may also be present in sauces, soups, beer, milkshakes, medication, and cosmetics, to mention a few.

monster in stomach concept

Celiac disease

Historically, a gluten-free diet has mostly been used by people who have celiac disease. This is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the cell lining of the small intestine and it affects approximately one in 100 people. When people who have celiac eat gluten, it damages the small intestine and can cause symptoms that can be debilitating, such as gas, bloating, headaches, and joint pain. Such individuals should follow a strict gluten-free diet.

passing on gluten

Gluten sensitivity

Some people who have not tested positive for celiac may experience similar symptoms when eating gluten. In the past, there was no proof that such a sensitivity existed and the reactions these individuals had to eating gluten was considered a bit of a mystery. Studies now have shown that people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity also experienced intestinal cell damage when consuming gluten. At present, it is not confirmed that gluten is the root cause.

Rheumatoid hands

Example: gluten and rheumatoid arthritis

Social media abounds with claims that going gluten-free can cure RA, but research in the field has not shown a definitive link. There are a number of other possible reasons for a potential easing of symptoms. For instance, the joint pain associated with celiac disease can resemble RA. In addition, when you have one autoimmune condition, you’re more likely to develop a second. That is, celiac and RA can coexist, but are not connected in a causative way.

Grain in basket and bags

Is there a downside to going gluten-free?

Eating a gluten-free diet is not without consequences. Grains, especially whole grains, are part of a healthy, balanced diet, contributing to digestive health, and include much-needed vitamins and minerals. They can also lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, conditions which may be more prevalent among people with chronic illness, such as RA. As well, manufactured gluten-free products may be highly processed and therefore less nutritious.

Doctor holding stethoscope on heart

The long-term impact of not eating gluten

A longitudinal study followed more than 100,000 women and men for 24 years to assess the long-term impact of not eating gluten. Specifically, the researchers were interested in investigating the possible connection between consuming gluten and the risk of heart disease. The results showed that increasing the amount of gluten lowered the risk of heart disease.

Talking to doctor about nutrition

How to test your sensitivity to food

If you suspect you may have a sensitivity to food, you may want to talk to your doctor about an elimination diet. In this process, you will only eat certain foods for a minimum of one month, perhaps longer. You will then gradually introduce other foods and monitor your reaction. This can show if you are sensitive to particular foods or food additives.

balanced diet

The benefits of incorporating diet in your treatment

Including an awareness of what you eat and perhaps emphasizing certain foods can have a beneficial effect on your chronic illness. Identifying potential trigger foods may help you enhance your quality of life. As well, from an emotional point of view, being aware of what increases or decreases your symptoms can help you feel more in control. If your condition does not respond to food, focusing on eating a healthy, balanced diet can help improve your overall health.

woman researching diet

Should you try a gluten-free diet?

If you are interested in trying a gluten-free diet, it’s wise to not leap before you look. As with all treatments and complementary regimens, it’s important to do your research before jumping into something new. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons. If you decide to go ahead, you may want to ask for a referral to a dietitian or nutritionist who can put together an approach that ensures you get all the essential nutrients.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.