Food & Nutrition

Is a Gluten-Free Lifestyle Affecting Your Genes?

Following a gluten-free diet with or without celiac disease can affect your health and wellness. It may also play a role in your genetic makeup. Learn more.

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Is a Gluten-Free Lifestyle Affecting Your Genes?

Find out whether a gluten-free diet and lifestyle is right for you -- based entirely on your genes.

Over the past few decades, diet culture has gone mainstream in the U.S. and around the world. And it makes sense. After all, rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have steadily increased, and many people are looking for non-pharmaceutical solutions to their health problems.

But are these restrictive diets -- like dairy-free, meat-free, or gluten-free -- right for your unique health needs?

That's where DNA analysis can help.

By knowing more about your own food intolerances, you can choose the best foods to nourish your body for the long-term. Only here's the question: Should you go gluten-free?

What does it mean to be "gluten-free"?

To understand what it means to follow a gluten-free diet, you need to first know about gluten. Gluten is a type of protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. And while gluten is typically digested by humans without any problems, it can sometimes cause stomach upset and uncomfortable digestion.

Someone who follows a gluten-free diet avoids ALL foods containing gluten. This means popular foods like pasta, pizza, and bread are all off-limits. However, the popularity of gluten-free diets has led to a rise in gluten-free versions of these popular foods.

Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance

A gluten-free diet is the single most effective treatment for celiac disease (CD), an autoimmune condition with a global prevalence of about 1%.

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder. It can lead to a direct immune system response to gluten consumption (causing digestive discomfort, diarrhea, stomach upset, and more). If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to inflammation that damages the lining of the small intestine and malabsorption of key nutrients essential for a healthy body.

The most common digestive symptoms of celiac disease include:

Other non-digestive symptoms include:

Although the prevalence of celiac disease has remained stable over time, many more people report another condition called gluten intolerance. Current research suggests these people may be suffering from permeable gut lining, which could allow some undigested gluten, bacteria, and other substances to go through the lining and into the bloodstream. This, in turn, causes inflammation and general digestive discomfort.

Can anyone follow a gluten-free diet?

Yes, anyone can follow a gluten-free diet. However, doing so has both pros and cons.

For example, some research indicates that a higher intake of gluten (likely in the form of whole grains) is linked with a decreased risk of type-2 diabetes. Additionally, lower gluten intake is related to reduced consumption of fiber and other beneficial nutrients.

Does this mean a diet of pizza and pasta is the key to a longer, healthier life? Not exactly. But even so, the nutrient quality of gluten-free diets has consistently been shown to be poorer compared to traditional diets. This could explain the increased risk for certain health outcomes.

How does a gluten-free diet affect your genetics if you don't have celiac disease?

Despite the increasing popularity of gluten-free diets, little is known about the characteristics of people on a gluten-free diet without celiac disease compared to the general population.

While genome-wide association studies (called GWAS, for short) have found genetic factors associated with the intake of specific foods and beverages and dietary patterns, no GWAS had included gluten-free diet.

Until now.

In order to investigate the genetic, lifestyle, and health-related characteristics of individuals without celiac disease who follow a gluten-free diet, researchers performed a genome-wide association study in the U.K. of 125,000 participants.

Gluten-free status was confirmed in a questionnaire where the participants reported their dietary intake from the previous 24 hours using a list of 206 preselected foods and beverages. As part of the questionnaire, participants were asked if they routinely follow a special diet, including an option for a "gluten-free or wheat-free diet." If participants responded "yes," they were identified as following a gluten-free diet.

Results showed that gluten-free diet followers were:

Conversely, these individuals were less likely to:

Although this GWAS showed no gene loci reached genome-wide significance, some single nucleotide polymorphisms (called SNPs – these are just common genetic variations, usually a single letter change in a sequence of DNA) were found to be related to a gluten-free diet with suggestive significance.*

Some of the characteristics of participants following a gluten-free diet suggest a "healthier" phenotype (a phenotype refers to a person's observable traits -- like height, eye color, etc.). Despite this genetic result, followers of a gluten-free diet had poorer self-reported health and a higher prevalence of hospital-diagnosed digestive, blood, and immune mechanism disorders.

Based only on this study, it's difficult to infer why a participant is following a gluten-free diet or determine whether pursuing a gluten-free diet occurred before or after the onset of health issues or lifestyle changes.

Could a gluten-free lifestyle affect your genetics?

One of the best ways to determine how a gluten-free diet interacts with your body is through a comprehensive and personalized DNA analysis.

A DNA testing kit is simple to use, and your genetic DNA testing results can reveal many answers about total body nourishment, including whether you should avoid gluten.

Once you’ve taken an at-home DNA test, you can use your raw DNA file to further analyze your genes. Simply sign in to the Genomelink dashboard to upload your DNA file, and we will take care of the rest.

* These SNPs were rs74925829 in the PIK3CD, rs12487147 in the LINC00698, and rs1997054.

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