Wheat Protein Could Worsen Chronic Illness

By Pat Anson, Editor

Gluten isn’t the only reason why some people should avoid eating wheat.

German researchers have discovered a second protein in wheat that triggers inflammation and worsen symptoms of multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic illnesses. The finding could help explain why some people who are not gluten intolerant and do not have celiac disease still benefit from going on a gluten-free diet.

Researchers say a family of proteins called amylase-trypsin inhibitors (ATIs) make up only about 4% of the protein found in wheat. But they can trigger powerful immune system reactions outside the digestive system, in the lymph nodes, kidneys, spleen and brain.

"As well as contributing to the development of bowel-related inflammatory conditions, we believe that ATIs can promote inflammation of other immune-related chronic conditions outside of the bowel,” said lead researcher, Professor Detlef Schuppan of Johannes Gutenberg University.

“The type of gut inflammation seen in non-celiac gluten sensitivity differs from that caused by celiac disease, and we do not believe that this is triggered by gluten proteins. Instead, we demonstrated that ATIs from wheat, that are also contaminating commercial gluten, activate specific types of immune cells in the gut and other tissues, thereby potentially worsening the symptoms of pre-existing inflammatory illnesses.”

Schuppan presented his findings at United European Gastroenterology Week. He said future clinical studies will explore the role that ATIs play on chronic health conditions in more detail.

"We are hoping that this research can lead us towards being able to recommend an ATI-free diet to help treat a variety of potentially serious immunological disorders," said Schuppan.

Celiac disease is a gastrointestinal inflammation caused by the ingestion of wheat, barley, rye, and other foods containing gluten. About 1-2% of the population has celiac disease, but most cases go undiagnosed and untreated.

People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as headaches, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and allergies. Abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements are frequently reported with NCGS, which can make it difficult to distinguish from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The symptoms typically appear after the consumption of gluten-containing food and improve rapidly on a gluten-free diet, even though gluten does not appear to cause the condition. Schuppan says the real culprit may be ATIs.

"Rather than non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which implies that gluten solitarily causes the inflammation, a more precise name for the disease should be considered," he said.