Gluten is a protein often found in grains, such as wheat. These proteins may play a role in some types of arthritis. The connection between gluten and arthritis suggests that the body may mount an allergic response to the protein. This response could sometimes be the cause of inflammation and pain found in rheumatoid arthritis and other related conditions.
Rheumatoid arthritis involves an improper immune response that targets joint tissue in the body. Some research has linked arthritis with diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease. Both of these diseases often involve gluten intolerance. Gastrointestinal problems that result from eating gluten can lead to activation of the immune system, resulting in subsequent attacks on the joints and connective tissue.
Individuals with celiac disease typically have problems with one gluten protein known as gliadin. In the course of celiac disease, the body creates antibodies that target gliadin. When the individual eats food with gluten, the presence of gliadin-antibody complexes causes immune cells to "switch on" and target nearby cells for destruction. This creates damage to the gut.
A similar mechanism involving gluten and arthritis has been investigated in one study. The participants in this study had both celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Hours after eating wheat-based foods with gluten, they experienced greater degrees of pain and inflammation.
Researchers have found that gluten, as well as the peptides formed from digesting these proteins, traveled from the gut to the bloodstream. Antibodies that specifically bound these proteins and peptides created large molecular structures called immune complexes. These complexes signaled to nearby cells to mount an immune response in the body.
Immune responses linking gluten and arthritis seem to begin with platelets, a specific type of blood cell. Platelets release the chemical serotonin, which encourages the arrival of white blood cells that cause inflammation. The immune complexes tend to congregate in joints, which is why the resulting response affects connective tissue in these areas. Serotonin is thought to increase the chances of the immune complexes making their way to joints, thus localizing damage to these areas.
The link between gluten and arthritis has led some health experts to propose dietary changes in an effort to alleviate symptoms. At least one study has found that a gluten-free diet led to less joint pain and inflammation in individuals with arthritis. Researchers believe that this reduction in symptoms may be due to the absence of the immune response relating gluten and arthritis. They also state that this diet could result in the body creating certain anti-inflammatory antibodies that might reduce symptoms.