The Celiac and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease Connection

Female doctor discussing with a patient
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Celiac disease, which is sometimes referred to as celiac sprue or sprue, is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the cells lining the intestine. This attack is a reaction to the presence of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Eating these foods causes inflammation, which in turn makes it difficult for the body to properly absorb nutrients from foods.

Celiac disease is a that damages the small intestine. People with celiac disease cannot eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. 

Some of the common symptoms of celiac disease include the following:

  • Intestinal difficulties
  • Abdominal bloating and pain
  • Nausea
  • Gas 
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Peripheral neuropathy (tingling, numbness or pain in your hands and feet)
  • Erratic menstrual periods
  • Infertility
  • Recurrent miscarriage
  • An itchy skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis 
  • Joint/muscle pains and aches
  • Brain fog
  • Hives

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, celiac disease can run in families, and about 10 to 20 percent of close relatives of people with celiac disease also are affected.

Some practitioners theorize that genetic differences can predispose someone to become sensitive to gluten protein. Subsequently, the body reacts allergically, releasing mucous into the intestinal tract upon gluten exposure, causing damage to the intestines.

Celiac disease is also known to be triggered in susceptible people by pregnancy, severe stress, or physical trauma. Celiac disease also is more common among people with type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune conditions, including autoimmune thyroid disease.

According to researchers, there is a clear relationship between celiac disease and autoimmune thyroid disease. 

  • Celiac disease is found in from 2 to 5 percent of patients with autoimmune thyroid disease. 
  • Patients with celiac disease are three times more likely to have thyroid disease.

Given these risks, some experts feel that patients with autoimmune thyroid disease should be screened for celiac disease, and those with celiac disease should be screened for autoimmune thyroid disease. 

The Impact on Thyroid Patients

The conventional response to autoimmune thyroid disease patients is that nothing can be done to lower antibody levels or to address or treat the "autoimmune" aspect of their thyroid conditions.

Some practitioners, however, are recommending a gluten-free diet to autoimmune thyroid patients. Interestingly, some studies have shown that thyroid antibodies lowered or even disappeared after 3 to 6 months of a gluten-free diet.

Diagnosing and Treating Celiac Disease

To diagnose celiac disease, your doctor can do a blood test to measure the levels of antibodies to gluten. These antibodies are called antigliadin, anti-endomysium, and antireticulin. A diagnosis of celiac disease can be confirmed by an intestinal biopsy.

The only real treatment for celiac disease is strict adherence to a 100% gluten-free diet for life. Following a gluten-free diet can prevent almost all complications caused by the disease. A gluten-free diet means avoiding anything that contains wheat, rye, and barley, or any of their by-products.

Foods that can be eaten on in a gluten-free diet include:

  • Fresh meats, fish and poultry
  • Milk and unprocessed cheeses
  • Dried beans
  • Plain fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Corn and rice
  • Gluten-free breads, pasta, and other gluten-free grain products
  • Potato, soy, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, and bean flour instead of wheat flour. 

Foods prohibited on a gluten-free diet:

  • Any bread, cereal or other food made with wheat, rye, barley and oat flours or ingredients and byproducts made from those grains.
  • Processed foods containing wheat, gluten-derivatives, or thickeners. These foods include hot dogs, ice cream, salad dressings, canned soups, dried soup mixes, non-dairy creamers, processed cheeses, cream sauces, and hundreds of other common foods.

If you are following a gluten-free diet, you should be aware of other hidden sources of gluten, including: 

  • Herbal, vitamin, mineral, and nutritional supplements
  • Prescription medications
  • Over-the-counter medicines
  • Cosmetics, lip gloss, and lip balm
  • Oral hygiene products, such as toothpaste and mouthwash

In some cases, tests do not show a definitive diagnosis of celiac disease, yet a patient may have many of the symptoms. In this case, if symptoms resolve by going on a gluten-free diet, the condition is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) or non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), or more broadly, gluten intolerance. 

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Article Sources
  • Ch’ng, CL, et. al. "Celiac Disease and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease." Clinical Medicine & Research. 2007;5(3):184-192. doi:10.3121/cmr.2007.738.
  • Metso S, et. al.  "Gluten-free diet and autoimmune thyroiditis in patients with celiac disease. A prospective controlled study." Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology. 2012 Jan;47(1):43-8. doi: 10.3109/00365521.2011.639084. 2011 
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Health Information: Celiac Disease." June 2016.
  • Roy, A, et. al. "Prevalence of Celiac Disease in Patients with Autoimmune Thyroid Disease: A Meta-Analysis." Thyroid. 2016 Jul;26(7):880-90. doi: 10.1089/thy.2016.0108.