A reader submitted a question that I wanted to answer here because it brings up two incredibly important issues. First is the question of gluten “challenges” and second is the effect gluten has on the brain.
Here is her question:
“I was diagnosed with Celiac Sprue at age 12 after having suffered my entire life. After that they had me do two challenges, one at age 13 and one at age 14. Both left me sick for months. I am a person that responds to eating gluten in both physical and mental ways. When I slip I get depressed, anxious, and have mood swings. My question is if eating gluten can affect the brain and actually cause lesions, what happens when a person has undiagnosed Celiac Sprue during the time that the brain is still maturing?”
You may think that because Catherine is likely an adult that her gluten “challenges” occurred more than 10+ years ago and such things wouldn’t happen today. I wish that were true, and honestly little gets me more upset than hearing from someone that they were “made” to challenge gluten for several weeks in order to re-do a biopsy or other celiac testing procedure, only to get incredibly ill as a result.
As I’ve stated before I am not against celiac testing. But there are times when one needs to evaluate what is the greatest good. When a person has “suffered [her] entire life” prior to being diagnosed, only to remove gluten from her diet and feel vastly improved, what really is the point of doing a challenge? And since the first challenge left her “sick for months”, what on earth could be the justification for doing another one? It certainly wasn’t because her symptoms were subtle. She clearly states that she feels ill both physically and mentally when any gluten enters her diet.
Yet this happens often – too often. I hear about it personally from our patients, not to mention those who write to me. My biggest concern is that a gluten challenge will cause the body’s immune system to cross a threshold from which it cannot be brought back with the result being an autoimmune disease. I have seen this all too often which is why you’ve heard me refer to gluten challenges and cheating as playing Russian roulette. It has been well established that untreated gluten intolerance shortens one’s life span. It too has been well established that gluten is a frequent root cause of autoimmune disease. I never see a good reason to do a gluten challenge in an individual who “knows” they are sensitive – it certainly violates the oath to “do no harm”.
Catherine goes on to ask a good question about how gluten may affect a developing brain. As I mentioned, the inflammatory and autoimmune effects of gluten upon the nervous system are well established. The symptoms created are numerous and include depression, chronic headaches or migraines, ADD/ADHD, autism, developmental delay, poor memory, schizophrenia and more. The degree to which gluten affects the nervous system is likely dependent on several factors, specifically, the presence of a leaky gut, a genetic predisposition, the presence of gluten in the diet, and the health of the immune system. Factors in utero are highly related to the health and diet of the mother, in addition to the genetics of both parents. All these variables likely go to answering the question of why some people seem to “come out of the womb” ill from gluten, while others can live many decades before it becomes a problem.
Dr David Perlmutter has and continues to do some excellent work in this area. Just recently he was published on Huffington Post so you can read more there.
Is gluten, in its current state, truly good for anyone? With the recent research revealing that many develop celiac disease later in life, one really starts to wonder…
I hope this data is helpful. Please let me know how I can assist you further.
To your good health,
Dr Vikki Petersen
Founder of HealthNOW Medical Center
Co-author of “The Gluten Effect”