New research suggests that wheat and dairy proteins can cause ‘leaky gut,’ and may also cause the immune system to attack cells in the brain.

As we become a more health-conscious nation, the focus is shifting from calorie counting to eating foods that are “clean” and “nutrient-dense.” But what effect does nutrition have on people with multiple sclerosis (MS)?

A new study conducted by researchers at Immunosciences Lab, Inc. in Los Angeles, Calif., along with colleagues from Bastyr University in California and Boise State University in Idaho, concludes that sensitivity to wheat and dairy products could play a huge role in MS disease progression.

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Researchers already knew from previous studies that people who have an allergy to cow’s milk may be at risk for developing autoimmune diseases because people with these diseases make a greater number of antibodies than healthy controls.

In order to find out what role eating wheat and dairy plays in the autoimmune process, researchers studied blood samples from 400 donors of unknown health status, comparing them to samples from people with autoimmune diseases. The blood samples were exposed to proteins from wheat and dairy, as well as proteins that occur naturally in the brain.

What the scientists discovered was that immune system cells in the blood of patients with autoimmune diseases reacted more strongly not only to wheat and dairy proteins but also to proteins found in the brain.

“When antibodies can bind to more than one different protein, this is called ‘antibody cross-reaction’ or ‘molecular mimicry,’” explains Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D., a scientist and author of the popular blog in an interview with Healthline. “It can lead to autoimmune diseases if the antibody binds to our own proteins…This paper showed that about half of the people who had food intolerances to wheat and dairy produced antibodies that cross-react with proteins found in neural tissues like the brain.”

The researchers found that when the blood samples of people with autoimmune diseases were exposed to an increase in wheat or dairy, the level of antigens to attack cells in the brain also rose, suggesting that eating wheat or dairy products could increase disease activity in those with MS.

“This proves that there’s a link between food intolerance to wheat and dairy and neuroimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis,” Ballantyne adds. “It’s more complicated than ‘food sensitivity to milk and wheat causes multiple sclerosis,’ but it does provide a possible source of the autoantibodies that target the immune system against the brain and spinal cord, as happens in MS, and certainly strengthens the case for anyone with neuroimmune disorders to avoid eating wheat and dairy.”

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The theory is that when the proteins from wheat and dairy permeate the lining of our guts, it throws the door to the bloodstream wide open for all sorts of things—including bacteria—that can then wreak havoc on the brain and other parts of the body.

“Increased intestinal permeability, or ‘leaky gut’ can occur either when the cells that line the gut become damaged or when the junctions (called tight junctions) between those cells open in a dysfunctional way,” said Ballantyne. “There are a variety of circumstances in which the controls of these tight junctions fail (like overproduction of the protein zonulin, which signals tight junctions to open, which is believed to be a key component of Celiac disease and potentially other autoimmune diseases as well).”

Diets to treat “leaky gut” have cropped up as a result of research like this. A currently enrolling study at the University of Iowa, led by Terry Wahls, M.D. (who also has MS), is aiming to show how diet affects progressive MS. Wahls has written about the diet she’s devised and shared her own account of stabilizing her disease by sticking to it. Not coincidentally, the Wahls Diet is both dairy and gluten free.

Also gaining in popularity is the Paleo Diet, which also restricts gluten and dairy. In her book, The Paleo Approach, Ballantyne explains the science behind the diet and how dairy and gluten pave the way from the gut to the brain.

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While pharmaceutical companies pursue the development of new therapies to help prevent new MS attacks or slow disease progression, little money is being invested in studying the relationship between diet and disease.

For people suffering from MS, eating healthy is important, but before you embark on a new diet, be sure to consult your doctor. Your doctor knows your medical history and can refer you to a nutritionist to tailor a diet to your own unique needs.

You are what you eat, indeed.