How Does Gluten Affect the Brain?

The brain is a complex machine and gluten may affect it

The widespread occurrence of gluten sensitivity, wheat allergies and celiac disease have been well documented. Many of the related problems such as gastrointestinal discomfort (IBS), rashes, problems 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 problems 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 effects 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 problems have been found to occur more severely – and frequently – in adults. [5]

In some cases, the problem is simply a loss of brain matter. While this is certainly not good and can lead to more severe problems, the adoption of a gluten-free diet has been show 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 problems 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 epilectic 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 problem derives from immune response and irritation caused by the body’s response to gluten.

Based on this anyone who knows of or suspects a gluten allergy should seriously consider adopting a gluten free diet, your brain will thank you. Have you noticed an effect between your ears from cutting gluten out of your diet? Please leave a comment below and share your experience with us.

- Dr. Edward F. Group III, DC, ND, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM

References:

  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.

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  • Roxanne Heaton

    I suffered migraines for almost twenty years. One day my mom told me that her friend’s son who is four tested positive for gluten sensitivity. I was like really what symptoms did he show? And she said that the gluten inflames the brain and he was having behavioral issues. Then something clicked in my head and I googled everything I could on the gluten issue. Sure enough I decided I had nothing to lose but to try not eating gluten. After a few weeks of serious withdrawals it happened I stopped having migraines. Also skin rashes cleared. My plantar fasciitis that had been crippling me for two years suddenly got better (I am only 35 but felt 65). Guess now that I think about it I just felt robbed from the life I deserved since all along. Now I still get itchy ears ever time I eat corn also. I could go on and on with stuff but just sad when we half to self diagnose ourselves then watch loved ones suffer because a diet chance out of the norm just doesn’t work for some.

  • Edward Group

    Thanks for sharing your story, Roxanne. You’re absolutely right, the systemic issues that can arise from your diet is really surprising and is a testament that we all need to be conscious and aware of what we’re putting in our bodies.
    -Dr. Edward Group

  • Robin Bobula

    I am an RN who has had migraines since I was a teenager (I will be 60 soon). After reading “Heal Your Headache,” about 12 years ago, I eliminated most of the usual dietary and chemical triggers (but not gluten), with only a slight improvement. I still experienced daily headaches much of the time, and still had severe migraines with nausea and vomiting which necessitated trips to the ER. After reading “Wheat Belly,” I began to try to eliminate gluten from my diet. Since getting rid of about 85-90% of the gluten in my diet, I have noticed that I no longer wake up with daily headaches, and the incidence of migraines has decreased by about 80%. I can now usually trace a migraine to several days in a row of “cheating” on my gluten-free diet. The migraines I do get are less severe and more easily managed at home. I can now again eat many of the foods I had eliminated, as they were not the problem. This has been like a miracle for me, and I wish I had know this years ago. If you’re wondering whether or not to try gluten-free, TRY IT. You have nothing to lose but your debilitating headaches.

  • Positive Dennis

    THe last time I had wheat after a month without it I fainted. I am eating it right now but am in Russia and the wheat may be different and it is an experiment. THe only thing I have noted is binge eating, headaches and increased eating, so off it I go.

  • KickingandScreaming

    Gluten greatly affects my mood and behavior. When I eat gluten I am very irritable and anger easily. I also go into depression easily when eating gluten. I thought I was maybe bi-polar until I stopped eating gluten and also soy. If I eat either of those the behavioral issues and depression comes immediately back.

  • Edward Group

    Excellent info, Robin, and a great motivation to everyone — simply given gluten free a TRY and see how you feel!

  • Gudrun

    I have most definitely have, both physically and mentally.
    My almost daily migraine is gone, mood is brighter and I am more focused. Not irritated, groggy and foggy. I am more ‘present’.

    Also, stomach cramps, diahrea, non-stop gas, acne, night sweats, dizziness, heart palpitations, joint aches, leg aches gone too. Back is much better, shoulders less tense, menstrual cramps have eased. Hot flashes gone and breathing is not heavy anymore.
    I am SO glad I discovered this. Cutting all wheat is not hard at all because I am so thankful for all the positive changes.
    I got a blood test for celiac though and doctor saw no signs of it… lol.

  • Michelle in Az

    Hello. My name is Michelle. I am 46 years old, and healthier now than anytime in my whole life. I suffered from so many symptoms I have lost count. It took me three years of research to come to the conclusion that gluten was the culprit. Headaches, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, IBS, skin rashes, rage, endometriosis, two pre-term birth babies, PMS, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia….gluten free for almost 4 years now, and 98% symptom free. What I experience now is the permanent damage left behind. I will never go back. I have a life now beyond sickness. I am self-diagnosed…no testing. I do have extended family members who are endoscopy-confirmed as Celiac, and some diagnosed gluten sensitive. That’s all I need. I will never go back to consuming gluten. My only regret is not having it figured out sooner.

  • Jennifer

    This is me I had alot of these symptoms

  • Jennifer ;)

    Soon lots of people will realize how this affects the whole body and will I hope make a change I suffered tor along time with different symptoms I thought it was just me. I’m feeling better not 100% yet but there’s an improvement in my health. I also lost 20lb wasn’t even trying but because I’m eating better and took out 90% of gluten its what happened it got me where I needed to be. I recommend giving it a try you’ll feel better.

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