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How Does Gluten Affect the Brain?

Written by Dr. Group, DC Founder
Multiple Grains in sacks with other ingredients in wooden bowls.

The widespread occurrence of gluten sensitivity, wheat allergies and celiac disease have been well documented. Many of the related concerns such as gastrointestinal discomfort (IBS), rashes, concerns with nutrient absorption and bone loss have been reported and observed. Fortunately for many, following a gluten-free diet can relieve these indications and revitalize health. But, aside from digestive complaints, there may be another reason to avoid gluten – its effect on the brain.

Recent research on the concerns related to gluten have focused on the impact it has on the brain. Scientists have discovered a very close connection between the brain and the enteric nervous system (the ‘brain’ of the digestive tract). Based on this understanding, researchers have begun to look at gluten’s effect on immune response and nutrient absorption and how it affects the brain. The results so far have been terrifying.

Headache? Maybe it’s Gluten

Frequent headaches and migraines can be as irritating as they are painful. While a typical response may be to take a couple of aspirin and try to get on with the day, the better response might be to discover the cause. Headaches may be caused by something eaten – and that something may be gluten.

A recent study has suggested a link between gluten sensitivity and celiac disease with IBS and migraines. The research has indicated that those suffering from celiac disease and IBS suffer more frequent headaches and migraines than those who do not. [1] Further research has suggested that the body’s response initiates in the digestive tract and creates an over-sensitive nervous response, leading to debilitating migraines. [2]

Another study evaluated children with celiac disease who suffered frequent headaches. Children were placed on a gluten free diet to determine if this would alleviate the headaches... and in an overwhelming majority of the cases it did. [3]

Of course, if gluten is only causing you headaches, consider yourself lucky, or maybe not...

Should Food Cause Brain Abnormalities?

Patients suffering from celiac disease have been found to have significant brain abnormalities as reflected on MR imaging (MRIs). Those suffering from headaches showed the greatest degree of brain abnormality. [4] In children, neurologic complications have been found to occur in response to gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. Neurologic concerns have been found to occur more severely – and frequently – in adults. [5]

In some cases, the concern is simply a loss of brain matter. While this is certainly not good and can lead to more severe concerns, the adoption of a gluten-free diet has been shown to help. Other cases have been noted that cannot be so easily ‘fixed.’

Researchers at John Hopkins University School of Medicine explored the impact of gastrointestinal redness (such as created by celiac disease) in schizophrenia. They looked at factors such as immune system activation and the increased ability for toxins and pathogens to enter the blood stream. In doing so, they found that immune factors as initiated in the gut suggests a link to mental illness. [6] While more research needs to be done on this subject, the fact that top researchers have begun to explore the relation between intestinal concerns caused by gluten and mental illness should give anyone concerned for their health and well-being pause.

Regardless, the evidence continues to mount in the case against gluten.

Gluten and Ischemic Stroke

Gluten has been indicated in both ischemic stroke and blood clotting in the brain. In a few reported cases of ischemic stroke, the only factor that doctors could find that might contribute to the cause was the celiac disease. Researchers have suggested that the primary factor in these cases may have been the auto-immune response caused by the celiac disease. [7]

Just as with the strokes, blood clotting in the brain has been reported with the only underlying cause that of celiac disease. [8] While this has so far only been reported in individuals with celiac disease, there may be reason for those suffering from any type of gluten sensitivity to be aware.

Gluten Free and Symptom Free

In addition to headaches, brain abnormalities and blood clotting that may lead to stroke, gluten has been directly linked to epileptic seizures, and white (brain) matter lesions indicating ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). These links are cause immediate for concern. The good news is there is hope.

Studies have found gluten sensitivity caused changes in the brain. Researchers saw calcification on certain sections of the brain that caused epilectic seizures. In each of these cases the seizures stopped once the patient began a gluten-free diet. [9] [10]

The same result occurred in an individual suffering from lesions on the brain similar to those seen in ALS. Upon examination of the patient, celiac disease was discovered. Once he was placed on a gluten free diet the MR imaging (MRI) showed a reduction in the lesions and an overall improvement in his condition. [11]

Even though the research on the impact of gluten on the brain is relevantly new, the message is clear – gluten has much more far reaching impacts on our health than previously thought. The research suggests a significant component of the concern derives from immune response and irritation caused by the body’s response to gluten.

References (11)
  1. Dimitrova AK, Ungaro RC, Lebwohl B, Lewis SK, Tennyson CA, Green MW, Babyatsky. MW, Green PH. Prevalence of migraine in patients with celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease. Headache. 2013 Feb;53(2):344-55. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4610.2012.02260.x. Epub 2012 Nov 5.
  2. Cady RK, Farmer K, Dexter JK, Hall J. The bowel and migraine: update on celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2012 Jun;16(3):278-86. doi: 10.1007/s11916-012-0258-y.
  3. Lionetti E, Francavilla R, Maiuri L, Ruggieri M, Spina M, Pavone P, Francavilla T, Magistà AM, Pavone L. Headache in pediatric patients with celiac disease and its prevalence as a diagnostic clue. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2009 Aug;49(2):202-7. doi:10.1097/MPG.0b013e31818f6389.
  4. Currie S, Hadjivassiliou M, Clark MJ, Sanders DS, Wilkinson ID, Griffiths PD, Hoggard N. Should we be 'nervous' about coeliac disease? Brain abnormalities in patients with coeliac disease referred for neurological opinion. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2012 Dec;83(12):1216-21. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2012-303281. Epub 2012 Aug 20.
  5. Lionetti E, Francavilla R, Pavone P, Pavone L, Francavilla T, Pulvirenti A, Giugno R, Ruggieri M. The neurology of coeliac disease in childhood: what is the evidence? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2010 Aug;52(8):700-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.2010.03647.x. Epub 2010 Mar 19.
  6. Severance EG, Alaedini A, Yang S, Halling M, Gressitt KL, Stallings CR, Origoni AE, Vaughan C, Khushalani S, Leweke FM, Dickerson FB, Yolken RH. Gastrointestinal inflammation and associated immune activation in schizophrenia. Schizophr Res. 2012 Jun;138(1):48-53. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2012.02.025. Epub 2012 Mar 24.
  7. El Moutawakil B, Chourkani N, Sibai M, Moutaouakil F, Rafai M, Bourezgui M, Slassi I. Celiac disease and ischemic stroke. Rev Neurol (Paris). 2009 Nov;165(11):962-6. doi: 10.1016/j.neurol.2008.09.002. Epub 2009 Jan 13.
  8. Boucelma M, Saadi M, Boukrara H, Bensalah D, Hakem D, Berrah A. [Association of celiac disease and cerebral venous thrombosis: report of two cases]. J Mal Vasc. 2013 Feb;38(1):47-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jmv.2012.11.003. Epub 2012 Dec 31.
  9. Johnson AM, Dale RC, Wienholt L, Hadjivassiliou M, Aeschlimann D, Lawson JA. Coeliac disease, epilepsy, and cerebral calcifications: association with TG6 autoantibodies. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2013 Jan;55(1):90-3. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.2012.04369.x. Epub 2012 Jul 31.
  10. Peltola M, Kaukinen K, Dastidar P, Haimila K, Partanen J, Haapala AM, Mäki M, Keränen T, Peltola J. Hippocampal sclerosis in refractory temporal lobe epilepsy is associated with gluten sensitivity. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2009 Jun;80(6):626-30. doi: 10.1136/jnnp.2008.148221. Epub 2009 Feb 24.
  11. Brown KJ, Jewells V, Herfarth H, Castillo M. White matter lesions suggestive of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis attributed to celiac disease. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2010 May;31(5):880-1. doi: 10.3174/ajnr.A1826. Epub 2009 Nov 12.

†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.


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