How Does Gluten Affect the Brain?

by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
Published on , Last Updated on

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 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 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.

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. Global Healing Center does not dispense medical advice, prescribe, or diagnose illness. The views and nutritional advice expressed by Global Healing Center are not intended to be a substitute for conventional medical service. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.

  • 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.

  • Maran

    I aim to be gluten free, but can occasionally be ‘glutened’ when outside the home. My particular symptomatology, if I accidentally and unknowingly ingest gluten, is that within 20 minutes I have an overwhelming compulsion to sleep. This just happens even if I try to fight it. It is like the sleep of someone who is drugged. It might last for 20-30 minutes but I cannot shake it off during that time and am quite deeply asleep.
    As well as this I get effects such as bloatedness, etc, but this sleep effect is quite concerning. I suppose it is the more severe end of brain fog.
    I often wonder if accidents are caused by people who have undiagnosed gluten problems, having large amounts of wheat in some form just before driving. I’ve read about people who fall asleep at the wheel and are convicted of dangerous driving … I do wonder!

  • Freespirit

    I couldn’t agree more… I am 45 and most of my adult years I have suffered from migraine, bloating, overweight issues, and in the last several years, depression, mood swings, irritability, panic attacks, muscle cramps, excessive bleedings and pain during menstrual periods, in other words, much to my surprise I started feeling kind of messed up and I didn’t understand why, because I had none of these issues when I was younger. I felt my health is slipping out of my control and I was desperate because of it. When it all became the worst and I was already severely anaemic from the bleedings and constant muscle pains all over my body and in my throat coming and going for weeks, my naturopath-and-MD brother ordered me to a strictly vegetable-fruit diet for 5 weeks to ease my body from allergens and get rid of inflammation. Within 48 hours of not eating gluten, my bleeding stopped, in the next 3 weeks I lost over 6 kg weight, my panic stopped, my depression, my mood swings disappeared, my muscle pain went away and I felt like a newborn. I had one migraine episode with the pain lasting only 1 day instead of the usual 3 and even that day it felt like just a slight touch, compared to the excruciating pain earlier. I did not need to take any painkillers. I do not have celiac disease according to the doctors. However… yesterday, accidentally some wheat got into my body from a restaurant… oh boy… the bloating, the gas, feelings of panic, irritability, cramps – came rushing back. I don’t need more proofs than that. I wish you all great health and symptom-free life. And those of you who need scientific proof…just stop eating gluten and see the difference for yourself. 🙂

  • Lisa

    I suffered a stroke a few years ago when I was 32. I had known I had a sensitivity to Gluten. I usually ate a GF diet but around the holidays, I ate whatever I wanted. Gluten and all. I suffered a stroke in January with multiple lesions on my brain. They didn’t even think it was a stroke when I got to the hospital, they didn’t think I was having or had a stroke due to my age. Even though my right side was weaker and was paralyzed during the initial stroke. The admitted me and told me they would do an MRI in the morning. They were discussing discharging me after the results came back from the MRI. However, when the results came back, they told me I did indeed suffer a stroke and I had multiple lesions on the left side of my brain. I wasn’t gonna get to go home after all. I was in the hospital for 5 days. I kept bringing up my gluten sensitivity and they told me again and again, that wouldn’t cause a stroke. Test after test, no answers. I told every doctor I met about my gluten intolerance. Everyone shot me down. My neurologist said, I may be on to something but at this point, they just didn’t know. It was very frustrating. There are to many people who don’t know this important information. To many people suffering from disease. I wish I could get the word out tgere and save more people from having a stroke. Thank you for this article. It’s the first time my truth was validated!!

  • Unknown

    I had been accused all through school (I am now 42) with hypochrondria, with my Mom mistreating me and a myriad of wrong diagnoses. It was only about 6 years ago I was finally diagnosed with gluten intolerance, after reading that 1 out of 3 people diagnosed with IBM actually have gluten problems including Celiac disease. My Dr.’s husband and son have problems too so she was very helpful. I have brain lesions, my spine started deteriorating around age 13 resulting eventually in multiple spinal…cervical, thoracic and lumbar surgeries and many other unfixable conditions. When I started cutting out gluten within 2 to 3 weeks I found a dramatic difference in my life. Now when I ingest gluten I suffer the next day and a few more days…I have a delayed reaction to it. I wish good luck to you all and I hope everyone out there will at least consider trying a gf diet to see if there is a difference in there lives. Oh and btw, I am fairly sure my Mom had celiac as almost every year for over 15 years she ended up in the hospital for intestinal blockages and required surgeries every time. She has now been deceased for 21 years, while in the hospital awaiting another surgery.

  • Kari

    You should look into narcolepsy. Google “zombie research Institute” and read the entire website. Narcolepsy is an autoimmune disorder that runs in my family and I have found when I am glutened I can’t fight the sleep either… Best of luck to you!

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  • J.D.

    I cut wheat out of my diet for months to do a trial run and then reintroduce the wheat to see if it had an effect on me — one of my doctors recommended this and said the effect may be more obvious after cutting it out for a while. Within a half hour of having wheat again (organic wheat, in my own homemade garlic knots, not anything with any additives), my brain felt blocked, my thinking was slow, cloudy, my nervous system felt depressed. It felt harder to be happy. I had a slight headache and the back of my neck felt tense. None of these feelings were there before. Nothing else was going on at the time to make me feel this way. I’d had nothing new or different to eat or drink beforehand. I was really careful because I wanted to isolate the symptoms. Really, whatever science does or doesn’t say, experience says it all. I had a piece of cake made with oat flour the other day and felt fine afterwards. It’s not always easy to make things gluten-free, especially eating out, but if this is the price I pay for eating wheat…really, it’s not worth it. I’d rather go out of my way to get gluten-free foods, then feel miserable like this again.

  • Zoe

    Hi. I’m so glad I found this and I’d really like to thank the author and everyone who’s submitted their experiences. It’s really helped me to understand what’s happened to me. I’m 49 and all my life I’d suffered from digestive problems, bloating, wind, constipation and diarrhoea. As I got older other symptoms started to appear: allergies such as dustmite allergy and hay fever which just got worse and worse, random shooting pains, mostly in my limbs, constantly hungry, I put on 6 stone in 3 years, constantly tired and lethargic, regular sore throats, particularly when I was on holiday, I started to choke every time I ate anything and found I was slurring my words. I became more and more uncoordinated and clumsy and my memory was getting worse and worse. My hair started to thin and was very grey. My teeth were in bad condition, even though I kept them very clean. I couldn’t concentrate or understand basic concepts. The doctor told me I had too many symptoms and he couldn’t treat them all at once and put me on antidepressants. Then I got really itchy eczema. I googled pictures of eczema and the ones that were closest to mine were for gluten intolerance. I’ve been gluten free for about 6 months now and a lot of my symptoms have got better or disappeared altogether. I can concentrate better now although I still have a poor memory. I just hope that a diet of oily fish and lots of walking will help my poor brain. At least I don’t have to feel embarrassed about my brain now, I just blame it on the ‘holes’ in my brain caused by the gluten intolerance.

  • Roxanne Heaton

    So here I am 3 years later I stumbled across my post. Today I wasn’t so much interested in the gluten as I am searching mental health remedies. I have been gluten free now for three years and its helped so much. But recently I have been irritable and unhappy. My thoughts jumble around in my head. Now reading my old post I see how my thoughts are pretty hard for me to explain. So I am eager to try the NeuroFuzion supplement by Global Healing Center and I know its going to help since I did have some left over lithium oratate in my fridge I suppose form 3 years ago but I didn’t feel the effect then. I started taking them a week ago and I could feel a difference right away. I feel happy and even eager to wake up and get out in the -30 below weather and drive an hour to work on icy roads and be at work all day. This is not like me usually I dread every minute. So I am eager to see how well the NeuroFuzion will be but I was feeling real bi polar and now I am much easier to be around. I’m giving a shout out to everyone at Global Healing Center they made a difference in my life! Thank you!

  • Roxanne Heaton

    I would just like to add that a year later I found out why my ears were itchy. I was reacting to polyester fabric. So now I also avoid polyester clothing and bedding. Polyester is a petroleum product not something you want on your body. The use of polyester thread is high too since its durable and my trouble is they don’t half to put the kind of thread on the tags.
    I would also like to share that when I did cut gluten out of my diet my brain stem was quivering and I felt like I could go into a seizure this went on for over a week. I looked up remedies for withdrawals and tried magnesium and Vitamin B and that instantly helped. That tells me how physically addictive gluten is.

  • Carol-Ann

    I ate some spaghetti which my daughter left over today. Just about two forksful and within about 15 minutes my head felt heavy, my hands started to shake, my vision became blurred on the left side and my legs felt heavy and as if I would topple over when I walk. I tried drinking a lot of water and I took a Zyrtec. My vision has cleared a little bit but I still feel funny.

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