Gluten Ataxia

Jessica Gore
Neurological Effects of Gluten Sensitivity

Some experts now say all patients diagnosed with sporadic idiopathic ataxia should be evaluated for gluten ataxia. This is a condition marked by neurological damage resulting from an autoimmune response to gluten intolerance. Prompt diagnosis and treatment with a gluten free diet can improve symptoms of ataxia and can even halt progression of further neurological damage.

Symptoms of Gluten Ataxia

A 2003 study examined 132 patients with sporadic idiopathic ataxia, or ataxia with no identified cause. Upwards of 40 percent of these patients tested positive for anti-gliadin antibodies. Surprisingly, although the most commonly recognized forms of gluten sensitivity involve the gastrointestinal tract, a mere 13 percent of these patients presented the classic digestive symptoms associated with celiac disease. The remainder had no indication of food intolerances. Upon further examination, brain scans found that 79 percent of these patients had significant damage to the cerebellum, presumably the result of years of autoimmune assault caused by gluten sensitivity.

At first glance, gluten ataxia appears to be indistinguishable from other forms of ataxia. Common symptoms include:

  • Lack of coordination: With gluten ataxia, loss of coordination predominantly affects the lower limbs.
  • Headache
  • Dysarthia, or imperfect articulation of speech
  • Ocular symptoms, such as gaze-evoked involuntary eye movement
  • Dysmetria, or inability to control the strength or speed of your movement
  • Brief, involuntary twitching of a muscle or group of muscles
  • Rarely, tremor of the soft palate

Additionally, a 2008 article published in the journal "The Cerebellum" indicated a statistically significant proportion of patients diagnosed with gluten ataxia also had other autoimmune disorders, specifically hypothyroid, type I diabetes and pernicious anemia.The easiest way to distinguish gluten ataxia from other ataxias, however, is by the presence of antigliadin antibodies in the bloodstream. This is accomplished by a simple blood test, and results are generally available within a few days.

Treatment

Currently, most causes of ataxia have no effective treatment. Patients are only able to treat the condition symptomatically, for example, by using leg braces or specially designed footwear to compensate for loss of motor control in the legs. Gluten ataxia, however, has a readily identified and available treatment, For this reason, specialists recommend all patients diagnosed with sporadic idiopathic undergo anti-gliadin antibody testing.

A study published in the "Journal of Neurology, Neuroscience and Psychiatry" in 2003 evaluated dietary treatment for gluten ataxia. In the study, 43 ataxia patients who had tested positive for anti-gliadin antibodies were offered a gluten-free diet as treatment, 26 of whom adhered to the diet over the course of one year. Of these, three patients continued to test positive for antigliadin antibodies, while the remaining 23 showed significant improvement in ataxia symptoms and reduction in antigliadin antibodies as a result of dietary treatment. Even patients who had no sign of gastrointestinal symptoms improved after dietary modification, indicating diet therapy is a viable option for all gluten ataxia patients.

Prognosis

Like other forms of gluten sensitivity, gluten ataxia has an excellent prognosis, if patients rigorously adhere to a gluten free diet. Although the diet may require an initial adjustment period, it is a healthy, effective, drug-free option with no side effects and minimal cost.

If you have been diagnosed with sporadic idiopathic ataxia, it is worth the time and effort to be evaluated for gluten sensitivity. A positive diagnosis could open up effective treatment possibilities, not only to lessen symptoms, but also to prevent further neurological degradation. Speak to your doctor about antibody testing and, if necessary, seek a second opinion to uncover the cause of this life-altering condition.

Gluten Ataxia