Wheat Proteins May Trigger Inflammation in Lupus and Other Chronic Conditions

Ines Martins, PhD avatar

by Ines Martins, PhD |

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wheat proteins and lupus

Researchers have found that a group of proteins in wheat may be responsible for triggering inflammation in chronic conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. The protein could also contribute to the development of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

How gluten, another wheat protein, can harm people who are celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitive is fairly well-established. In new research, presented at the United European Gastroenterology (UEG) Week 2016 in Vienna, Professor Detlef Schuppan with Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany and colleagues looked at a different family of wheat proteins, called amylase-trypsin inhibitors (ATIs). ATIs are proteins derived from plants that inhibit enzymes of common parasites in wheat, and they play a role in metabolic processes that occur during seed development.

ATIs only make up about 4 percent of wheat proteins, but their consumption can lead to inflammation in the lymph nodes, kidneys, spleen, and brain — as well as in the gut, the researchers reported. For this reason, ATIs can aggravate symptoms of autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

“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. The type of gut inflammation seen in non-coeliac gluten sensitivity differs from that caused by coeliac disease, and we do not believe that this is triggered by gluten proteins,” Professor Schuppan said in a news release. “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.”

The research team is now focused on gaining a better understanding of the role of ATIs in chronic conditions.

“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,” Schuppan said.

Besides causing inflammation outside the bowel, ATIs may also contribute to the development of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS),  now a recognized medical condition. Its symptoms, which can begin up to 48 hours after ingesting gluten and continue for a long period, include abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements, as well as headaches, joint pain, and eczema. To diagnose NCGS, it is first necessary to rule out celiac disease, wheat allergy or other possible causes of symptoms. Gluten sensitivity may be diagnosed if improvement is seen when following a gluten-free diet.

Schuppan hopes that the findings could be used to redefine non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. “Rather than non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, which implies that gluten solitarily causes the inflammation, a more precise name for the disease should be considered,” he said.