Gluten Cross-Reactivity: When Gluten-Free isn’t Enough

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j Attribution: Depressed (CC) by Sander van der Wel

For those of us who avoid gluten due to celiac disease or gluten intolerance, a gluten-free diet doesn’t always do the trick. Many feel an improvement but continue to experience symptoms. In fact, among celiac patients, only about 8% experience complete healing after eliminating gluten. Not only are the rest robbed of enjoying good health, but they are left vulnerable to developing other autoimmune diseases over time.

What is cross-reactivity?

Sometimes continued ill-health is a matter of cross-contamination or simply giving your body the time it needs to heal, but often that’s not the case at all. Instead, you might be suffering from gluten cross-reactivity. This is an immune reaction in which antibodies against gluten proteins react against different proteins in other foods. Even though these foods don’t contain gluten, your body acts as though they do.

How does this happen? When antibodies are formed against a protein, they recognize specific short sequences of amino acids, the building blocks that make up the protein. They do not recognize the entire protein. In cross-reactivity, the amino acid sequence recognized by the antibodies is also present in a different protein in another food. It’s a case of mistaken identity. In other words, your body identifies an amino acid sequence found in gluten proteins and thinks, “Aha! Gluten! I must attack!” But in reality, the protein wasn’t gluten at all, just something containing the same amino acid chain.

Problematic foods

Cross-Reactive Foods
  • Dairy (About 50% of gluten intolerant people have a reaction to casein, a protein found in milk. Other milk proteins can also cause cross-reactivity.)
  • Oats
  • Yeast
  • Coffee
Other Offenders
  • Grains and psuedocereals (buckwheat, sorghum, millet, amaranth, quinoa, teff, corn, rice)
  • Tapioca
  • Sesame
  • Hemp
  • Soy
  • Egg
  • Potato

This list is taken from Cyrex Laboratories, a clinical immunology laboratory specializing in functional immunology and autoimmunity. As you can see, there are four primary offenders when it comes to gluten cross-reactivity: dairy, oats, yeast and coffee.

Other foods may be an issue for different reasons. Some grains and starches not common in American diets are often introduced when an adult switches to a gluten-free diet. Since tolerance to foods is developed during childhood, if these things were not in your diet as a kid, they could be problematic if introduced during adulthood. Other foods like rice, corn and potato are frequently over-consumed on gluten-free diets, which can cause new sensitivities to develop.

If you are reacting to one or more of these foods and eliminate them for some time, your gut may heal and you may be able to successfully reintroduce the food to your diet. This is not always the case. If you have been gluten-free for awhile and still don’t feel as well as you’d like, cross-reactivity may be worth exploring.