How Does Gluten Affect the Brain?

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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 symptoms and restore 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.

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