Arthritis and Gluten: What’s the Connection?

Medically reviewed by Nancy Carteron, MD, FACR on October 30, 2017Written by Steven Kim, MD

Overview

Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints. It usually affects the hands and can be very painful. People with arthritis often have swelling and stiffness in their joints, making daily activities difficult. It’s usually treated with medication and, in some severe cases, surgery.

However, medication and surgery aren’t the only ways to help manage your arthritis. What you eat can also have an impact on how inflamed your joints become.

Certain foods can help fight inflammation and boost your immune system. Other foods, such as sugar and alcohol, can irritate arthritis. Gluten, a protein in wheat, may also cause a flare-up of arthritis symptoms, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Arthritis and autoimmune disorders

There are many types of arthritis, and researchers are still unsure about exactly what causes it. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and juvenile arthritis (JA) are two types of arthritis that are considered autoimmune disorders. This means that your immune system isn’t functioning properly and attacks healthy cells, causing inflammation and damage. In this case, the immune system attacks the cells around the joints, inflaming them and causing pain.

Arthritis affects most people in the joints. When arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, it can have an effect on other areas of the body too and lead to the development of other disorders.

Celiac disease and gluten

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. When you have celiac disease and you eat foods with gluten such as breads, cereals, and pastas, your body attacks the gluten, causing pain in your intestines and diarrhea.

Since the gluten can be anywhere in your blood, people with celiac can have pain and inflammation in other areas of the body, such as the joints. It can also cause organ damage, bone loss (osteoporosis), and weight loss.

People with celiac disease have to follow a strict gluten-free diet to avoid these symptoms. Celiac disease is also underdiagnosed because some of the symptoms mimic other conditions such as arthritis.

Celiac and autoimmune disorders

If you have celiac disease, you’re at risk for developing another autoimmune disorder. In fact, the older you are when you’re diagnosed, the more likely you are to develop another disorder. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, there is a 1.5 to 6.6 percent chance of developing juvenile arthritis if you have celiac. RA and diabetes, two other autoimmune disorders, are also linked to celiac.

Connection between arthritis and gluten

So, is there a connection between arthritis and gluten? Researchers aren’t sure, but some people have noticed that their arthritis is worse after eating certain foods, including gluten. People with arthritis are encouraged to follow a diet low in salt, fats, and carbohydrates to avoid inflaming their joints. Read about other foods to avoid if you have arthritis.

To date, there’s no research that shows that arthritis can cause celiac, but celiac may have an effect on arthritis.

Connection between arthritis and celiac disease

If you have celiac, you have an increased chance of developing another autoimmune disorders, such as Addison’s disease, Crohn’s disease, or arthritis. Sometimes celiac disease can be misdiagnosed as arthritis, especially if your only symptoms are pain in your joints.

If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and have joint pain, talk to your doctor about celiac. This is especially important if you have RA, type 1 diabetes mellitus, or another autoimmune disorder.

Should you consider a gluten-free diet?

While the Arthritis Foundation recommends that you avoid gluten if you have arthritis, you shouldn’t consider a gluten-free diet unless you have a diagnosis of celiac disease or are diagnosed with glutena intolerance. If you have arthritis, try limiting your intake of gluten, and see if your symptoms improve.

The takeaway

Much research into the connection between gluten and arthritis still needs to be done. If you have arthritis, talk to your doctor about your diet and what you can do to relieve your symptoms.

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