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Can a Gluten Free Diet Increase Your Risk of Toxic Metal Exposure?

Toxic metals can have serious detrimental effects on health, and research has suggested that those who follow a gluten free diet have a higher incidence of toxic metal exposure. So in this article, we will be taking a look at why this happens, and how you can eat gluten free while reducing your exposure to toxic metals. 

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a family of proteins that are found in all grains, including (but not limited to) wheat, barley, and rye. And because grains are a prime ingredient in so many foods (and a secondary ingredient or additive in so many other foods), gluten tends to play a big part in the American diet. Those with celiac disease, non celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), or gluten intolerance, need to avoid gluten to prevent the inflammation and damage it can cause.

The Types of Gluten Free Diets

A gluten free diet is an absolute necessity for people who have celiac disease, and it is also mandatory for those with non celiac gluten sensitivity. However, many other people decide to adopt a gluten free diet in hopes of enjoying perceived health benefits. The gluten free diet has been marketed to support everything from weight loss to improved athletic performance. 

While we certainly agree that eliminating gluten from your diet can have significant health benefits, the benefits are best realized if a true gluten free diet is followed. Let’s take a quick look at the main differences between the traditional gluten free diet and the true gluten free diet.

  • Traditional gluten free diet

The traditional gluten free diet restricts wheat, barley, and rye as sources of gluten from the diet. Those following the traditional gluten free diet often find themselves consuming lots of processed gluten free foods made with alternative refined grains, inflammatory gums and stabilizers, sugars or sweeteners, and other artificial colors or flavors. These foods are largely comprised of corn, rice, and/or oats. They are highly processed, and contain large amounts of carbohydrate calories, but very low quantities of vitamins and minerals.

  • True gluten free diet

Since gluten is a mixture of proteins found in ALL grains, a true gluten free diet excludes ALL grains. This might seem contrary to mainstream advice, but the reality is, only a few types of gluten proteins ( alpha gliadin, found in wheat, secalin found in rye, and hordein found in barley) have been studied extensively. The labeling laws around gluten are based on these forms of gluten protein, but fail to recognize all other forms of gluten.

There are additional types of gluten proteins found in other grains. There is a growing body of research that shows that grains like oats, corn, and rice do actually cause inflammatory damage to those with celiac and gluten sensitivity.  The diagram below illustrates some examples of the different types of gluten:


Based on several research studies, many people with a celiac or non celiac gluten sensitivity diagnosis, fail to recover when they follow a traditional gluten free diet.

Problems With Traditional Gluten Free Diets

There is a big difference between eating foods that are naturally free from gluten and eating processed or packaged foods labeled gluten free. Unfortunately, the gluten free food industry makes billions from marketing highly processed foods that they can label gluten free to attract well meaning consumers. But there are several problems with these foods that contribute to other health concerns, including toxic metal exposure:

  1. Pesticides and additives: these chemically manipulated foods are loaded with pesticide residues, dyes, and potentially toxic food additives that can contain high levels of heavy metals.
  2. High in calories but low in nutrition: Gluten free substitute foods are also of poor nutritional quality, which increases the risk of malnutrition (a risk that is already elevated as those with celiac disease and non celiac gluten sensitivity often face deficiencies upon diagnosis due to malabsorption). Therefore, consumers end up overfed but undernourished, and low mineral status increases the risk of developing toxic metal accumulation and side effects.
  3. Toxic Metal Exposure: an analysis of data collected from NHANES showed that people following a gluten free diet had significantly higher urine levels of total arsenic and blood levels of mercury, lead, and cadmium than persons not avoiding gluten. This increased level is likely due to the nature of foods consumed on a traditional gluten free diet (e.g., excess rice, corn, high fructose corn syrup, etc.). Toxic metals can also have lasting effects on offspring of pregnant and breastfeeding women who are exposed. 

Common health issues linked to toxic metals

Toxic metal exposure increases the risk of a number of health issues, including the following:

  1. Neurotoxicity: Toxic metal exposure is linked to a number of neurological illnesses (i.e., those relating to disorders of the nervous system) such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease.
  2. Nephrotoxicity: Nephrotoxicity refers to deterioration in the kidney function. 
  3. Carcinogenicity: Several toxic metals can have carcinogenic effects, meaning they can contribute to the growth of malignant tumors (AKA Cancer).
  4. Hepatotoxicity: Toxic metals can cause injury to the liver or impairment of liver function.
  5. Immunological toxicity: Immunological toxicity refers to damage to the function of the immune system, contributing to increased allergies, infectious diseases, autoimmunity, and cancer.
  6. Cardiovascular toxicity: Toxic metal exposure may affect the heart and cardiovascular system, contributing to diseases including arteriosclerosis, hypertension, thrombosis, atherosclerosis, and cardiac disease.
  7. Skin toxicity: The skin is the body’s largest organ, and toxic metals can contribute to a number of skin diseases, including hyperkeratosis, hyperpigmentation, and several types of skin cancer. They can also lead to contact dermatitis and skin infections.
  8. Reproductive and developmental toxicity: Toxic metal exposure can affect reproductive functions and impair fertility in both males and females, often driven by endocrine disruption. They can also have developmental implications, primarily neural tube defects.
  9. Genotoxicity: Genotoxicity refers to the ability of toxic metals to cause alterations at the genetic level, which includes the induction of oxidative stress and the disruption of DNA repair.

Here’s what a healthy gluten free diet to avoid toxic metals looks like

A TRUE gluten free diet eliminates all grains, because all grains contain gluten in different forms. The best way to follow a true gluten free diet is to focus on healthy whole foods like grass fed and pasture raised meats and eggs, wild caught fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and other healthy fats like coconut and olive oil. This will also help you avoid grains that are frequently contaminated with metals, like wheat, corn, and rice. A comprehensive list of acceptable foods can be found here.

In addition to following a true gluten free diet to help avoid toxic metals, you may also consider adopting some lifestyle habits and a supportive supplement routine.  A common source of exposure to toxic metals comes from contaminated air and water.  So opting for a high quality reverse osmosis water filter as well as a HEPA air filter for your home can be very protective.

You can also ensure adequate intake of the following nutrients because research has found them to be protective from toxic metal accumulation:

  • Vitamin D
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Selenium
  • Manganese

The following whole foods can help the body naturally clear itself of toxic metals that you may have already accumulated. 

  • cilantro
  • garlic
  • blueberries
  • spirulina
  • chlorella
  • green tea

Find a great collection of nutritious and delicious truly gluten free recipes that use these nutrient dense ingredients and many more on the Gluten Free Society website.

2 Responses

  1. I became aware of metal presence in my food intake; taste of metal, the tongue discoloration, etc. Thanks to Dr. Osborne’s tutorials I can now take actions to eliminate this condition.

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