The prolamin proteins of grains— the gliadin of wheat, secalin of rye, hordein of barley, and zein of corn— initiate the small intestinal process that cause a perfect storm in our bodies. And they do so in more than one way. You could even argue that prolamin proteins are perfectly crafted to create autoimmunity.

Prolamin proteins of grains are masters at molecular mimicry. The prolamin proteins have been found to trigger immune responses to a number of human proteins, including the synapsin protein of the nervous system; the transglutaminase enzyme found in the liver, muscle, brain, and other organs; the endomysium of muscle cells; and the calreticulin of virtually every cell in the body.

If sequences in foreign proteins resemble sequences in a protein of the human body, a misdirected immune attack can be launched, sending antibodies, T lymphocytes, macrophages, tumor necrosis factor, and other weapons of the immune apparatus against the organ. Some targeted human proteins, such as transglutaminase and calreticulin, are ubiquitous and can therefore be associated with autoimmune inflammation of just about any organ of the body, from brain to pancreas.

Molecular mimicry is not the only means by which grains provoke autoimmunity; they also do so by increasing intestinal permeability. We’ve discussed how prolamins can resist digestion. When they remain intact, they bind to the intestinal lining and initiate a unique and complex process that opens the normal intestinal barriers to the contents of the intestines, such as food components, and to bacterial components and by-products, such as bacterial lipopolysaccharide— a potent driver of inflammation. The multistep process initiated by grain proteins was worked out through research performed by Alessio Fasano, MD, and his team at the University of Maryland, extraordinary work that makes the confident connection between the diseases of autoimmunity and grains. Grain prolamins increase the expression of the zonulin protein that, in turn, opens up the normal barriers—“ tight junctions”— between intestinal cells, allowing unwanted peptides and bacterial components into the bloodstream, where they can trigger an immune response. Besides gliadin and related prolamins, the only other trigger of this form of intestinal permeability are intestinal infections, such as cholera or dysbiosis.

This means that gliadin and related proteins of grains are the first step in initiating autoimmunity, a mechanism that has nothing to do with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Susceptibility to various autoimmune diseases can also be determined by genetic patterns, but in a staggering proportion of cases, the initiating event boils down to a single factor: consumption of grains.

Many conditions respond to grain elimination within days. For instance, joint pain in the fingers and wrists, acid reflux, and the bowel urgency of irritable bowel syndrome typically disappear within 5 days of your final pancake. Not so with the phenomena of autoimmunity. The swelling, joint pain, stiffness, and disfigurement of rheumatoid arthritis is going to take longer to respond to grain elimination, typically weeks to months, and occasionally even longer.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise, as the complex mechanisms of autoimmune inflammation develop over years. Likewise, changes in lymphocyte responses, clearance of antibodies, reductions in fluid, localized inflammation, and a wide range of other phenomena reverse themselves over time. The key is to eliminate all grains, and then wait; don’t declare the effort a failure if 2 weeks pass and nothing has happened. Patience is key. That’s why I liken the reversal of autoimmune conditions to slowing a locomotive or turning an ocean liner— neither occurs quickly, but they both happen with time.

It is also important to correct the other abnormal phenomena that make autoimmunity worse. The majority of people with autoimmune conditions fail to address factors that play an important role in permitting or sustaining autoimmunity; by addressing these factors, you stack the odds of complete relief from autoimmunity in your favor. You can find these discussions in the Wheat Belly Total Health and the Wheat Belly 10-Day Grain Detox.

Yours in grainless health,

Dr. William Davis

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