Gluten Intolerance and Brain Health

Annette McDermott
Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Headache when eating bread

Medical research has shown links between gluten intolerance and brain health. The impacts range from mild depression to severe neurological disorders which can significantly impact quality of life.

Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance

Celiac disease damages the lining of the small intestine and creates inflammation, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. This happens from eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. When damage is caused to the villi of the small intestine, the body cannot absorb adequate vitamins and minerals. Malabsorption occurs and often malnutrition, which leads to a wide range of problems, including neurological ones.

A person doesn't have to have celiac disease to be sensitive to gluten. Many people test negative for celiac but still experience adverse effects from eating gluten. This is often called gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity.

Neurological Effects of Gluten Intolerance

Many people focus on how gluten sensitivity affects the gastrointestinal system, but if you're intolerant to gluten, it can have devastating neurological consequences. The Global Healing Center (GHC) indicates that scientists have discovered an important relationship between the brain and the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system oversees the function of the gastrointestinal system and is often called the "gut's brain."

This relationship is likely one reason why research shows positive associations between gluten intolerance and a host of neurological disorders. A 2009 study by the University of Marburg in Germany surveyed celiac disease patients whose condition had been confirmed with a biopsy and the results were sobering. Of the participants, over one-third reported a medical history that included some form of psychiatric disease, including depression and even psychosis. Other neurological conditions displayed included migraines, seizures and vestibular dysfunction.

Headache and Migraines

According to GHC, studies link celiac and gluten sensitivity to irritable bowel syndrome and migraines. They state that research shows people who are gluten sensitive suffer more migraines and headaches than people who are not.

In addition, a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition concluded that children with celiac disease (located in Italy where the study was performed) experienced a high incidence of headaches. When the children went on a gluten free diet, the effects were beneficial.

Depression

According to an article in Psychology Today written by Dr. James M. Greenblatt, there has long been a link between gluten intolerance and depression. Dr. Greenblatt indicates that because the intestine is damaged, it cannot absorb the nutrients needed to keep the brain healthy.

One study determined that depression is a feature of celiac disease in adults. Another study reported that 73 percent of adolescents with celiac disease had cerebral blood flow abnormalities similar to those found in people with depressive disorders.

Seizures

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes states on its website that "epilepsy can result from an intolerance to wheat gluten." A study performed at the University of Ganziantep, Turkey showed that the incidence of celiac disease was greater in children with occipital lobe epilepsy than in the normal population.

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)

According to Georgia Ede, M.D. at Diagnosis Diet, there may be a link between food sensitivities (including wheat) and behavioral problems such as ADHD, according. Osteopathic physician Dr. Joseph Mercola agrees. He believes that most children with ADHD do not respond well to grains, especially wheat, and likely have gluten sensitivity. He cites a study which showed that patients with ADHD and celiac disease experienced significant improvement after following a gluten free diet for six months.

Other Neurological Disorders

The Gluten Free Society's (GFS) website says that research demonstrates a connection between gluten and "leaky brain syndrome" which, according to Dr. Simon Yu, causes difficulty concentrating, brain fog, fatigue and irritation. In addition, GFS indicates that the destruction of the blood barrier caused by zonulin, a protein released by gluten, may trigger several neurological disorders other than the ones above including:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disease
  • Facial palsies
  • Neuropathy
  • Nerve pain syndrome
  • Autism

Self-Esteem and Gluten Intolerance

According to Celiac.com, being gluten intolerant sets up a scenario for a child with the condition to experience psychological impacts. Dietary restrictions may make a child feel different or inferior to his peers and field trips and school activities may be difficult. Uncontrolled gluten intolerance can affect a child academically as well. This may lead to low self-esteem and social withdrawal, ultimately resulting in depression or anxiety.

Worth Considering

If you or someone you love suffers from any of the above neurological conditions or regular gastrointestinal problems, it's worth considering whether or not gluten intolerance is the culprit. If so, following a gluten-free diet may help relieve your symptoms tremendously.

As research delves further into gluten intolerance and the human body, a complex picture of its effects on the brain has emerged. While these findings may be concerning, they bring heightened awareness to the medical field to help them better treat this chronic condition. Talk with your doctor to determine if gluten is negatively affecting your brain health and to discuss your dietary options.

Gluten Intolerance and Brain Health