Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Our Hearts Go Out to the Travolta Family
It’s difficult to lose anyone in our life, but the loss of a child is even that more tragic. Jett Travolta was only 16, the same age as my youngest child. He suffered from a severe seizure disorder.
There are many causes of seizures, some understood better than others. I wanted to discuss the known association between seizures and gluten sensitivity. Please understand that I’m making no assumptions on the part of gluten being a causative agent in Jett’s condition. It’s just that seizures are such a tragic event for the patient as well as their families and any data I can provide that may help someone is something I’d like to do.
Below is some data from our upcoming book, The Gluten Effect.
It is quite amazing how many other parts of your health can be actively affected by gluten without the presence of any digestive symptoms. Of all the other organ systems of your body, the nervous system is the area most commonly affected by gluten after the gastrointestinal system. And, because our nervous system handles so many important functions, symptoms related to the nervous system are quite varied.
Your nervous system incorporates central structures including your brain, spinal cord, peripheral structures that are made up of sensory nerves (which sense pain, hot, cold, etc.), motor nerves (allowing you to perform movements) and nerves that regulate your involuntary systems (such as your heart beating, breathing while you sleep, intestinal movements, etc.). In individuals who are predisposed to gluten intolerance, gluten triggers an immune reaction that can interfere with the function of these structures.
Is Your Brain “On Fire”?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 thirteen percent of patients with neurologic symptoms from gluten sensitivity may have digestive symptoms, and, often, neurological 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.
Remember, symptoms are the body’s way of getting your attention and directing you toward the site of a problem. 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. Examining the different way in which gluten affects your nervous system is an excellent way to appreciate the scope with which gluten results in a variety of symptoms. It also highlights the importance of your diet in relationship to your health.
Gluten’s Relationship to Seizures
An excellent study was evaluated with 171 patients who suffered seizures and likewise had gluten sensitivity/celiac disease and calcifications in the brain. The overwhelming majority had gliadin antibodies in the spinal fluid (which circulates around the brain and spinal cord), and, likewise, most had the gene for having gluten sensitivity. Though many were unresponsive to treatment in general, it was notable that some did respond well to a gluten-free diet.
Why would gluten cause seizures? And are the calcium deposits in the brain related to gluten? Likely, the answer is “yes” to both questions. The presence of calcium deposits reflects chronic inflammation in some tissues. When inflammation has been present for years, calcium forms scars where the inflammation is located. Additionally, brain calcifications can form as a result of a folic acid (a B vitamin) deficiency, which may have been a contributing cause to the calcium deposits in these patients. Since gluten causes digestive malabsorption, then, folic acid may indeed have been low due to that.
The Mechanism ExplainedRegardless, the root cause is most likely an immune system attack triggered by gluten sensitivity. Antibodies that are made to attack gluten get confused (due to a process known as cellular mimicry) and attack normal tissue that looks similar to gluten’s protein structure. In the brain, once the tissue is inflamed chronically, calcium can deposit and form a hardened scar.
Because of this scar, seizures develop and can be difficult to control with normal seizure medications. Seizures are basically short circuits of the brain. Suppose there were an electrical pole knocked down onto the ground. The electrical wires tore and were lying unprotected, sending out sparks from their broken ends. The electrical connection had been severed. Calcium deposits and scars in the brain essentially do the same thing. They send off electrical “sparks” that can develop into seizures if enough brain tissue becomes involved. Medication may help the sparks from spreading, but with gluten-related seizures, medicines work less well.
Case Study: A Lovely Girl Who Leaves Her Seizures Behind
T.S. is a beautiful, vibrant, nine-year-old girl who had begun having seizures at the age of four. She had undergone standard medical testing without a cause of her seizures being found. We first saw her when she was four years old. Not only did we find that she was sensitive to gluten, but that she also had many intestinal infections, a Candida yeast infection, and an essential fatty acid imbalance. The infections were greater in number in her than in most adults we treat, and some were very resistant to treatment, requiring two rounds of antibiotics instead of the usual one. She was treated with fatty acids in addition to a gluten-free diet.
T.S. has had absolutely no seizures for two years. She told her mother recently that she knows that the gluten created her seizures, and she is more than happy to keep it out of her diet. It is noteworthy that her mother, also diagnosed by us as gluten-sensitive, never ate much gluten until her twenties because as a child, she had sensed that it bothered her. But, recalling when she was in college and consumed a lot of gluten, she remembered suffering from “brain fog” during that time.
Evidence of these inflammatory changes can be seen in some gluten-sensitive patients via MRI. This was supported in another study examining patients with gluten sensitivity and seizures, which demonstrated deep-tissue inflammation in at least twenty percent of the children studied who had seizures. In addition, none of these seizure patients had folic acid deficiency, which suggests that gluten was the primary cause of their problem.
It’s Worth Giving Gluten-free a TryWhile, thankfully, seizures are an uncommon manifestation of gluten sensitivity, it is extremely important to recognize it as a cause because the only effective treatment may be a gluten-free diet. If you never think of gluten as a cause, then you will never test for its presence. It would be miserable to have to suffer, or see someone else suffer, with seizures when a potential cure may exist with a simple dietary change.