The Role of Dairy & Gluten in Canker Sores

The Role of Dairy & Gluten in Canker Sores
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Does excluding dairy products, food additives, and gluten-containing grains from one’s diet help those with recurring canker sores (aphthous ulcers)?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Recurring canker sores are the single “most common inflammatory and ulcerative condition” of the mouth, affecting as many as one in five people. Ouch.

Sometimes, it can be a “sign of celiac disease,” the relatively rare autoimmune condition triggered by the wheat protein gluten. But what about those without celiac disease? Well, 37 years ago, there was a report of a small group of recurrent canker sore patients that got better after removing gluten from their diet—despite the fact that they didn’t have any signs of celiac disease. Now, without a control group, you don’t know if they would’ve just gotten better on their own. But it was interesting enough to spark further study.

Given that small series of patients, they decided to try out a gluten-free diet on 20 folks with recurring canker sores—again explicitly excluding those known to have celiac disease. And, five of the 20 seemed to get better, and, critically, then they got worse when they were challenged with gluten. So, even though there was no control group, in the few that got better, the ulcers came back when gluten was added back to their diet.

Now, this was not just some random group of canker-sore sufferers; the reason they had gotten intestinal biopsies to rule out celiac was because they had some other abnormalities; so, you can’t extrapolate from this study saying one in five sufferers may benefit from cutting out gluten, though, at least it appears in some people to help. Though, it would have been better if it was a blinded challenge. If you cut out gluten, or any food, and just coincidentally happen to feel better, you might convince yourself that gluten was the culprit. And so, then, when the researcher gives you a piece of bread, maybe just the stress at the thought of your ulcers coming back may actually help trigger the ulcers coming back.

That’s why, ideally, you do blinded gluten challenges, to see if gluten really is to blame. For example, if you take people who don’t have celiac or a wheat allergy, but nevertheless claim to be sensitive to gluten, you can test to see if they’re fooling themselves by randomly assigning them to take a capsule with gluten inside, or just a placebo made out of rice starch. So, they’re on a gluten-free diet, and then, you give them this pill—which, in the case of the gluten one, is equivalent to like two pieces of bread, and you see if they get worse. And then, just the thought of taking something that might be gluten: their symptoms shot up. And, this was them just taking a placebo rice-starch pill. But the reason we know this non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists is that the actual gluten pill made them feel even worse. And, that’s specifically what happened in the case of canker sores. Those who felt they were gluten-sensitive did actually get more canker sores, exposed to real, as opposed to fake, gluten.

Where did they even get the idea in the original study to try cutting out gluten? Well, back in the 60s, it was reported that the blood of patients with bad canker sores reacted to certain food proteins, like gluten, but had an even stronger reaction to the milk-protein casein. This has since been more formally tested. Fifty patients with recurring canker sores were compared to fifty healthy people for their levels of anti-gluten antibodies—gliadin is a type of gluten protein—and anti-cow’s milk protein antibodies. And, the canker sore sufferers were no more likely to react to the gluten, but the levels of anti-milk proteins “were significantly higher.” In fact, the majority reacted to the cow’s milk. “These results indicate [a] strong association between high levels of” anti-milk proteins in the blood with recurring canker sores.

But what we care about is do people actually get better or not when they cut out the milk? Well, upon hearing their results, three of the patients spontaneously decided to cut all dairy products from their diet for a few months to see what happened. And, it seemed to help. No reappearance of the sores in the first patient. Same with the second—until they had some cow’s milk ice cream. And, in the third, the ulcers seemed to come with less frequency. But, those were just some observations, not an actual study.

You see the same thing with certain food additives. Folks with recurring canker sores may react more to certain food dyes. And so, if you try people on a gluten-free diet, or a dairy-free diet, or a diet free of certain food additives, you’ll get a few cases of people responding—in this case, six out of 11; some better on the gluten-free, others better on the milk-free, others on the additive-free. But the responses were pretty dramatic—seen within a week. So, seems it might be worth giving these exclusion diets a try, to see if there’s a huge improvement.

Can’t you just get an allergy test or something? Apparently not. For example, this poor woman, who suffered from recurring canker sores since she was two years old: “multiple painful lesions in her mouth…almost constantly.” They asked her about milk, and she said she rarely drank it, because it appeared to trigger more almost immediately. So, they decided to look into it. They tested her for sensitivities to dairy, both so-called “prick and patch” allergy tests, and they were both negative. But hey, if she felt worse on dairy, might as well try cutting out all dairy products completely. And, for the first time in her life, the ulcers went away, and stayed away—unless she accidentally had some milk product.

So, even if people test negative, it may be worth a try to cut out all dairy, and see what happens. Look, we know cow’s milk may play a role in other allergic and autoimmune-type diseases, and there are these reports, going back decades, suggesting at least there’s a subgroup of canker-sore patients for which dairy is a causative factor. “However, awareness of this association is [rare] among both patients and healthcare providers.”

And, improvement can happen rapidly. A boy and a girl, both suffering for years with frequent multiple ulcerations, then apparently cured within two weeks. We don’t know how often it works; we just know it does—sometimes. So, as this 2017 paper in the Journal of the American Dental Association suggests, why not give a cow’s milk-protein elimination trial a try, “particularly before [the] use of medications with potential side effects.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image credit: Markus Spiske via Stock Snap. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Recurring canker sores are the single “most common inflammatory and ulcerative condition” of the mouth, affecting as many as one in five people. Ouch.

Sometimes, it can be a “sign of celiac disease,” the relatively rare autoimmune condition triggered by the wheat protein gluten. But what about those without celiac disease? Well, 37 years ago, there was a report of a small group of recurrent canker sore patients that got better after removing gluten from their diet—despite the fact that they didn’t have any signs of celiac disease. Now, without a control group, you don’t know if they would’ve just gotten better on their own. But it was interesting enough to spark further study.

Given that small series of patients, they decided to try out a gluten-free diet on 20 folks with recurring canker sores—again explicitly excluding those known to have celiac disease. And, five of the 20 seemed to get better, and, critically, then they got worse when they were challenged with gluten. So, even though there was no control group, in the few that got better, the ulcers came back when gluten was added back to their diet.

Now, this was not just some random group of canker-sore sufferers; the reason they had gotten intestinal biopsies to rule out celiac was because they had some other abnormalities; so, you can’t extrapolate from this study saying one in five sufferers may benefit from cutting out gluten, though, at least it appears in some people to help. Though, it would have been better if it was a blinded challenge. If you cut out gluten, or any food, and just coincidentally happen to feel better, you might convince yourself that gluten was the culprit. And so, then, when the researcher gives you a piece of bread, maybe just the stress at the thought of your ulcers coming back may actually help trigger the ulcers coming back.

That’s why, ideally, you do blinded gluten challenges, to see if gluten really is to blame. For example, if you take people who don’t have celiac or a wheat allergy, but nevertheless claim to be sensitive to gluten, you can test to see if they’re fooling themselves by randomly assigning them to take a capsule with gluten inside, or just a placebo made out of rice starch. So, they’re on a gluten-free diet, and then, you give them this pill—which, in the case of the gluten one, is equivalent to like two pieces of bread, and you see if they get worse. And then, just the thought of taking something that might be gluten: their symptoms shot up. And, this was them just taking a placebo rice-starch pill. But the reason we know this non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists is that the actual gluten pill made them feel even worse. And, that’s specifically what happened in the case of canker sores. Those who felt they were gluten-sensitive did actually get more canker sores, exposed to real, as opposed to fake, gluten.

Where did they even get the idea in the original study to try cutting out gluten? Well, back in the 60s, it was reported that the blood of patients with bad canker sores reacted to certain food proteins, like gluten, but had an even stronger reaction to the milk-protein casein. This has since been more formally tested. Fifty patients with recurring canker sores were compared to fifty healthy people for their levels of anti-gluten antibodies—gliadin is a type of gluten protein—and anti-cow’s milk protein antibodies. And, the canker sore sufferers were no more likely to react to the gluten, but the levels of anti-milk proteins “were significantly higher.” In fact, the majority reacted to the cow’s milk. “These results indicate [a] strong association between high levels of” anti-milk proteins in the blood with recurring canker sores.

But what we care about is do people actually get better or not when they cut out the milk? Well, upon hearing their results, three of the patients spontaneously decided to cut all dairy products from their diet for a few months to see what happened. And, it seemed to help. No reappearance of the sores in the first patient. Same with the second—until they had some cow’s milk ice cream. And, in the third, the ulcers seemed to come with less frequency. But, those were just some observations, not an actual study.

You see the same thing with certain food additives. Folks with recurring canker sores may react more to certain food dyes. And so, if you try people on a gluten-free diet, or a dairy-free diet, or a diet free of certain food additives, you’ll get a few cases of people responding—in this case, six out of 11; some better on the gluten-free, others better on the milk-free, others on the additive-free. But the responses were pretty dramatic—seen within a week. So, seems it might be worth giving these exclusion diets a try, to see if there’s a huge improvement.

Can’t you just get an allergy test or something? Apparently not. For example, this poor woman, who suffered from recurring canker sores since she was two years old: “multiple painful lesions in her mouth…almost constantly.” They asked her about milk, and she said she rarely drank it, because it appeared to trigger more almost immediately. So, they decided to look into it. They tested her for sensitivities to dairy, both so-called “prick and patch” allergy tests, and they were both negative. But hey, if she felt worse on dairy, might as well try cutting out all dairy products completely. And, for the first time in her life, the ulcers went away, and stayed away—unless she accidentally had some milk product.

So, even if people test negative, it may be worth a try to cut out all dairy, and see what happens. Look, we know cow’s milk may play a role in other allergic and autoimmune-type diseases, and there are these reports, going back decades, suggesting at least there’s a subgroup of canker-sore patients for which dairy is a causative factor. “However, awareness of this association is [rare] among both patients and healthcare providers.”

And, improvement can happen rapidly. A boy and a girl, both suffering for years with frequent multiple ulcerations, then apparently cured within two weeks. We don’t know how often it works; we just know it does—sometimes. So, as this 2017 paper in the Journal of the American Dental Association suggests, why not give a cow’s milk-protein elimination trial a try, “particularly before [the] use of medications with potential side effects.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image credit: Markus Spiske via Stock Snap. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Doctor's Note

Other ways to help prevent future outbreaks can include avoiding foaming agents in toothpaste. Learn more by watching my videos Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Safe? and Is CAPB in SLS-Free Toothpaste Any Better?.

What about treatment? See Topical Honey for Canker Sores and Best Supplement for Canker Sores.

I’ve also explored the role of gluten-free and dairy-free diets in autism:

Should everyone avoid gluten? Check out:

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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