Does Celiac Disease Or Gluten Intolerance Increase The Risk Of Having An Immune Reaction To Nanoparticles In Food?

March 26, 2010 · Filed Under Celiac Health, Thinking Outside The Box 

Nanotechnology involves altering or manipulating tiny particles on a molecular and atomic scale, that are about the size of one billionth of a meter (called a nanometre). These incredibly small particles can be changed into a powder, added to a liquid, gas or other substances and used to create new materials or devices with many various applications. There has been much excitement about the future use of these fascinating nanoparticles, since the possibilities and supply seem endless. Their potential use is valued in biotechnology, certain industrial applications (ex. electronics, computers, plasmonics, energy production) and in medical applications (ex. timed released and targeted medication, immunizations, enzymes for catalyzing reactions, surgical applications such as nanoscale valves, DNA computers, nanorobots that could diagnose with sensors and treat illness by targeting certain organs). As well, these particles are valued in the food industry for their potential effects in stabilizing or preserving food (ex. coating on an a piece of fruit) and increasing the taste of certain food products. I find the subject of nanotechnology very intriguing and it is exciting to think that many past fictional ideas could actually become a reality in the future. Life might be much easier with all of these new gadgets, tools, and resources (1,2,6,7,15,21-27).

However, as with any new technology, safety concerns need to be assessed. With nanoparticles, concerns have been raised about how they may be inhaled into the lungs, absorbed through the skin, or how they may affect the gastrointestinal tract and other parts of the body. I recently read Andrew Schneider’s articles at AOL News. He compiled a series of informative articles (see below) about nanoparticles, with an analysis of the current and future prevalence in our food supply. There are other articles as well that discuss potential concerns that are listed in the references. Today, I’m primarily discussing the potential effects of ingested nanoparticles on the immune system of individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, and how we may be at an increased risk for a reaction (1,3,4,5,7-14,18,20).

Nanoparticles are very tiny and can be made from a variety of sources. Humans have likely ingested many nanoparticles and other microparticles in their evolutionary past since they are prolific in our environment. However, the future addition of nanoparticles in our food may quantitatively increase our exposure (to high levels we have never experienced before) and, qualitatively, the newly created nanoparticles by mankind may be quite different from the particles we have been exposed to in the past. This qualitative and quantitative change may pose a problem immunologically for everyone, regardless of a gluten intolerance. In one study, with rats (in situ intestinal loop model), the gastrointestinal absorption of micromolecules (size 100 nanometers) was enhanced in comparison to the the larger molecules used in the study. Hypothetically, the same outcome would be found in humans, the extremely small size of the nanoparticles may enhance their absorption and this could lead to an interaction with the immune system (1-5,7-18,20).

For those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, increased bowel permeability may further increase the absorption of nanoparticles. Due to the effects of gluten and zonulin, this first line of defence is altered and the tight junctions in the small intestine become relaxed and open allowing easy entry. An exposure to more and different nanoparticles, combined with a leaky gut, could potentially increase one’s risk for an immune system reaction since the nanoparticles could cross paths with immune factors. Hypothetically, this could trigger the immune system to react unfavourably and lead to more autoimmune diseases, allergies or an intolerance to nanoparticles. As well, the nanoparticles in the bloodstream might travel to organs such as the brain, liver, etc., and cause damage. This seems plausible since we know that the immune system’s exposure to, for example gluten, in many individuals can lead to the same types of damage. It is reasonable to suspect that the immune system’s exposure to nanoparticles could cause similar reactions (10,16-19,20,28).

I also wonder about how nanoparticles may affect gene expression in our cells. Could a possible effect on gene expression increase the prevalence of other diseases? How would this affect our offspring? Overall, there are many mysteries around how our immune systems and genes will respond to these tiny particles and I believe that individuals with celiac disease and gluten intolerance (or others with increased bowel permeability) may be at a higher risk than the general public. This is one topic of interest that I’m going to follow very closely. For now, I’m excited about the future of nanotechnology for other uses, however, I am worried about it’s future presence in our food, toothpaste or even topical lotions (1-5,7-18,20).

Potential side effects should be well researched with large long-term studies. Additional studies evaluating the health risks associated with  the ingestion of nanoparticles in those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance would also be helpful. Adding nanoparticles to food without the proper research could be very costly in the long term. The strain of potential negative side effects on a healthcare system that is already drained financially could be detrimental. The decreased quality of life for those affected could be devastating. Effective research leading to safe usage would likely be more cost effective. As with everything, I believe primary prevention is the key (1,3,4,5,11,14,20).


Extra Information: In individuals that are predisposed to Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance, gluten consumption can lead to increased expression of zonulin (a human protein that is a haptoglobin 2 precursor) in the intestinal tissues. This increases intestinal permeability allowing macromolecules (ex. food antigens, bacterial, viral particles, or potentially future nanoparticles) exposure to the immune system. The immune systems exposure to gluten and the subsequent autoimmune reaction is thought to be responsible for the intestinal and other systemic damage seen in Celiac Disease. Unfortunately, the increased bowel permeability can also increase the risk of developing allergies/intolerances/sensitivities (28).

Links To Nanotechnology Articles (@ AOL News)

1. Andrew Scheider. Part 1: Amid Nanotech’s Dazzling Promise, Health Risks Grow. 

2. Andrew Scheider. Part 2: Regulated Or Not, Nano-Foods Coming To A Store Near You.

3. Andrew Scheider. Part 3: Obsession With Nanotech Growth Stymies Regulators. 


1. Andrew Schneider. The Nanotech Gamble: AOL News Key Findings.

2. Primer: How Nanotechnology Works

3. Andrew Scheider. Part 1: Amid Nanotech’s Dazzling Promise, Health Risks Grow.

4. Andrew Scheider. Part 2: Regulated Or Not, Nano-Foods Coming To A Store Near You.

5. Andrew Scheider. Part 3: Obsession With Nanotech Growth Stymies Regulators.

6. Nanorobotics.

7. Nanotechnology.

8. Cristina Buzea, Ivan Pacheco, and Kevin Robbie (2007). "Nanomaterials and Nanoparticles: Sources and Toxicity". Biointerphases 2: MR17.

9. Shetty RC (2005). "Potential pitfalls of nanotechnology in its applications to medicine: immune incompatibility of nanodevices". Med Hypotheses 65 (5): 998–9.

10. Elder, A. (2006). Tiny Inhaled Particles Take Easy Route From Nose To Brain.

11. Jianhong Wu, Wei Liu, Chenbing Xue, Shunchang Zhou, Fengli Lan, Lei Bi, Huibi Xu, Xiangliang Yang and Fan-Dian Zeng. Toxicity and penetration of TiO2 nanoparticles in hairless mice and porcine skin after subchronic dermal exposure.  

12. Effects of Nanotubes May Lead to Cancer, Study Says.

13. Nanoparticles used in paint could kill, research suggests.

14. Faunce TA et al. Sunscreen Safety: The Precautionary Principle, The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration and Nanoparticles in Sunscreens Nanoethics (2008) 2:231–240 DOI

15. Nanotechnology

16. Manisha P. Desetwar, Gordon L. Amidon, and Robert J. Levy. Gastrointestinal Uptake Of Biodegradable Microparticles: Effect Of Particle Size. Pharmaceutical Research vol13, No 12, 1196. 

17. Jonathan J. Powell, Nuno Faria, Emma Thomas-McKay and Laetitia C. Pele. Origin and fate of dietary nanoparticles and microparticles in the gastrointestinal tract. Journal of Autoimmunity Volume 34, Issue 3, May 2010, Pages J226-J233.

18. Florence AT, Hussain N: Transcytosis of nanoparticle and dendrimer delivery systems: evolving vistas. Adv Drug Deliv Rev 2001, 50:S69-S89. PubMed Abstract | Publisher Full Text OpenURL

19. Hussain N, Jaitley V, Florence AT: Recent advances in the understanding of uptake of microparticulates across the gastrointestinal lymphatics. Adv Drug Deliv Rev 2001, 50:107-142. PubMed Abstract | Publisher Full Text OpenURL

20. Peter HM Hoet, Irene Brüske-Hohlfeld and Oleg V Salata. Nanoparticles – known and unknown health risks. Journal of Nanobiotechnology 2004, 2:12.

21. Micheal Roukes. Plenty Of Room Indeed. Scientific American Reports. Volume 17, Number 3, 2007.

22. George M. Whitesides and J. Christopher Love. The Art Of Biulding Small. Scientific American Reports. Volume 17, Number 3, 2007.

23. Ehud Shapiro and Yaakov Benenson. Bringing DNA Computers To Life. Scientific American Reports. Volume 17, Number 3, 2007.

24. George gruner. Carbon Nanonets Spark New Electronics. Scientific American Reports. Volume 17, Number 3, 2007.

25. Harry A. Atwater. The Promise Of Plasmonics. Scientific American Reports. Volume 17, Number 3, 2007.

26. A. Paul Alivisatos. Less Is More In Medicine. Scientific American Reports. Volume 17, Number 3, 2007.

27. Charles M. Lieber. The Incredible shrinking Circuit. Scientific American Reports. Volume 17, Number 3, 2007.

28. School of Medicine News: University of Maryland School of Medicine Scientists Pinpoint Critical Molecule to Celiac, Possibly Other Autoimmune Disorders. Tuesday, September 29, 2009.


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