Is Going Gluten-Free Dangerous for Your Heart?
  • October 16, 2017
  • gluten-free

    Every year around Christmas, my family gathers around the dinner table to share a meal of homemade ravioli. Each part of this pasta dish has been made from scratch – from the pasta, to the filling, to the sauce from an old family recipe that has been passed down for generations. The rich red sauce is especially unique; for some new to the family, an acquired taste, and once acquired, all partakers in this dish note that no other pasta sauce could rival it in richness. I love the tradition of this meal, the sound of this meal as my family’s dynamic voices and laughter fill the room and the taste of this meal. And it is one of the few times in the year that I will indulge in food full of gluten.

    When I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome in 2014, I began a (mostly) gluten and dairy-free diet to decrease inflammation in my body. This has been especially challenging as I do not suffer more physical side effects of gluten consumption as those with celiac disease do. My symptoms are internal, thus not seen or felt.

    When I recently read the headline, “Gluten-free diet could increase cardiovascular risk in people without celiac disease,” I felt both alarmed and hopeful. Maybe this was just the evidence that would give me cause to regularly dig back into bowls of pasta and hearty breads.

    In short, here’s what the article had to say about going gluten-free:

    The article offers a brief synopsis of a 24-year study headed by Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, MS, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center. The overall finding of Lebwohl, et al. is that “gluten restriction has no benefit, at least in terms of heart health, for people without celiac disease.” Further, Lebwohl warns that many low-gluten diets are eliminating heart-healthy grains that protect against heart disease.

    But after breaking it down further …

    As with most things health-related, it’s complicated. My aunt, Christy Bacigalupo Koehler, a licensed acupuncturist and one of my oft-consulted health experts, notes that cardiovascular disease is much more complicated than just gluten. She argues that the nurse’s study from Lebwohl’s research it too vague to make the conclusion that gluten and heart disease are or are not related.

    “The bigger picture,” she claims, “is the gut biome and inflammation and their connection to heart disease. Gluten has a role here because we know it contributes to inflammation and disrupts the gut, but in this particular study they are not accounting for other variables contributing to inflammation and disrupted gut biome such as poor diet and smoking.”

    The gluten, gut health and heart health connection

    In order to learn more about the gut and heart health, Christy pointed me towards Chris Kresser. As a nationally recognized leader in functional and integrative medicine, Kresser’s articles and podcasts cover topics ranging from thyroid disorders to acupuncture to gut health. His podcast “The gut-heart connection” names leaky gut and an unstable gut microbiome as risk factors in contributing to cardiovascular conditions.

    While I knew that a healthy gut microbiome helps keep inflammation down, can improve your skin and keep your immune system strong, I did not know that our gut health was so closely connected to our heart health, and this is what my aunt was referring to. There is a good deal of information available that explains how disruptive gluten can be to gut health, thus casting doubt on the findings from the study conducted by Lebwohl, et. al. 


    I wanted to be able to convince the health professionals in my life that gluten should be a regular player in my diet based on the work by Lebwohl and his colleagues. But after spending some time in conversation with Christy and diving into additional research myself, I am not convinced that this would be the wisest choice for my heart and overall health. I cannot wait for that plate of ravioli at Christmas, but pasta and other delicious gluten-filled dishes will continue to be occasional treats for me.

    About Jamie Bacigalupo

    Having first traveled from her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to live in Quito, Ecuador, she decided to give the East a run and is now a resident of Shenzhen, China. She earned her degree in Communication Arts/Literature and Communication and Secondary Education from Gustavus Adolphus College and is enthusiastically exploring Asia by teaching abroad. She digs hanging out with her students by weekday, and relishes finding new restaurants to eat authentic Chinese food and finding new hiking paths on the weekends. In addition to sticking her nose in a book to recover from an intense workday, Jamie also loves exploring all manner of flavors in the kitchen, especially when she is whipping up some recipes for her friends and family.