In individuals who are predisposed to gluten intolerance, gluten triggers an immune reaction that can interfere with the function of the nervous system.
There is an abundance of evidence that inflammatory changes occur in the brain and nerves that cause a variety of symptoms. These can range from clumsiness, to headaches, to numbness, to mood disorders, to memory problems. It has been reported that only 13 percent of patients with neurologic symptoms from gluten sensitivity may have digestive symptoms, and often neurologic symptoms in gluten sensitive patients precede digestive symptoms by months to years when they do occur . For this reason, it is important to keep gluten in mind as a root cause when dealing with disorders of the nervous system.
If standard tests and exams cannot reveal a cause, dietary factors, toxins, lifestyle issues and other stresses deserve your attention. This is where gluten should be a strong consideration. Because gluten affects so many people silently, and because most of those symptoms are not related to the digestive tract, it needs to be an early consideration when addressing many health care problems.
In a person who is genetically at-risk for gluten sensitivity, gluten induces an immune attack against the protein gliadin and this antibody not only attacks gliadin, but also attacks tissues far away from the intestines. Through the bloodstream, antibodies can travel to the cerebellum portion of the brain and specific brain cells called Purkinje cells. As these cells become inflamed from the immune attack, the ability to coordinate “balance information” is impaired. Symptoms of poor balance and coordination then result.
A study out of Britain examined 224 people with ataxia (poor balance) disorders. Some had an inherited disorder of ataxia, some had ataxia combined with other neurologic symptoms, and some simply had ataxia without known cause. Of those that were without known cause, 41 percent were found to have anti-gliadin antibodies supporting gluten sensitivity as a cause. Also, when looking at all the patients in these groups that were positive for these antibodies, 79 percent had “small” cerebellums on MRI testing. The gluten antibodies that had been generated from the immune system’s reaction were not only directed against gluten proteins, but also against the cerebellum and over time the size of the cerebellum had decreased.
In another study, ten patients with headaches and/or clumsiness were placed on a gluten-free diet. Over time, nine of the ten all showed a beneficial response in all symptoms. The evidence is overwhelming. The presence of gluten antibodies, shrinkage of the cerebellum and the very positive response to dietary change, all support gluten as a root cause in neurological disorders. Yet, despite the very obvious factors indicating gluten, a dietary component, as the root cause, the majority of the time, no digestive symptoms exist.
A migraine, which is as a specific type of headache, occurs regularly in as many as 27 percent of the population. So when dealing when such a common condition, it may seem bold to claim that gluten likewise can cause headaches. But is this really so?
A British researcher found similar results in a response of gluten sensitive patients to a gluten-free diet. Ninety percent responded favorably to elimination of gluten in the diet. Another researcher reported a case study of a woman who converted her intermittent, occasional migraines to chronic daily headaches with the addition of wheat biscuits to her daily diet. Once these were stopped, her headaches again reduced dramatically
Marsha is a patient of ours who presented with a lifelong history of chronic debilitating headaches. In addition, she had severe facial acne and also poor sleep, yet she never complained of any digestive symptoms whatsoever. After her routine examination, she was found to be sensitive to gluten, and a gluten elimination diet was initiated. Marsha now has no headaches at all, and her facial acne resolved completely. As a nice benefit, her sleep is now restful without interruptions every night. She had been to many other clinicians and had tried many medications for her headaches, but in the end, she found the best relief by avoiding gluten.
In our society, simplistic solutions and causes are often overlooked. Large pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars to research and development of new drugs. Eliminating gluten from your diet does not require a prescription and does not support the cost it took to design the latest migraine medication. This is a significant reason dietary factors are ignored or over-looked. Yet, study after study support beneficial response to dietary changes in many conditions. If you are suffering from headaches or other neurological disorders and traditional medical means have failed or only offered temporary results, gluten may be an easy solution for you as well.