If you follow this blog or any major research into the field of gluten sensitivity, you likely know that neurological symptoms such as neuropathy, ataxia, migraines, schizophrenia and more, are quite commonly seen as associated with gluten. While you may know this if you’re a ‘seasoned veteran’ on the topic, if you’re brand new to the field it likely comes as a great surprise.
Gluten is, after all, something we eat, so how could it possibly cause problems with the nervous system? The stomach, yes, that’s understandable. The nervous system sounds like a bit of a stretch. I’ll be the first to agree that gluten’s reactions, that factually number about 200, are not intuitive. Why would a food damage your liver or your heart or your reproductive system? But indeed it does, and considering that neurological problems tend to head the list of THE most common reactions, I think it’s time that more people knew and understood the mechanism.
Such an understanding by lay persons and doctors alike will hopefully open the door to quicker diagnoses and better health.
I was very pleased to be introduced to the work of Sayer Ji, an author of several books and founder and director of GreenMedInfo.com.
After exploring 60 years of research on gluten, he asks the important question of whether gluten-containing grains contribute to psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. The question isn't a new one and research into the connection between gluten and schizophrenia is strong. In fact it’s a discussion we've had on this blog as well as my blog on the healthnowmedical.com site. What’s perhaps more important is how wide a net can be cast as it relates to gluten and psychiatric problems in general, not just schizophrenia.
Beginning in the 1950s there is literature to support the link between a gluten-free diet and resolution of emotional disturbances. It is interesting to note that during that same time period in history, the disease schizophrenia was known as ‘bread madness’.
Also in the mid-fifties a link was made between those with celiac and schizophrenia. There was seen to be a higher prevalence of the diseases together than when a normal non-celiac patient was evaluated for the condition.
A study published in 1966 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition entitled “Wheat “consumption” and Hospital Admissions for Schizophrenia During World War II” confirmed a suspicion that less wheat and rye ingestion equaled less first-time hospital admissions for schizophrenia. The results were not only confirmed in the United States, but also in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Canada.
Another interesting correlation was found in remote parts of the world where grains aren't consumed. Specifically Papau New Guinea, Malaita, Solomon Islands and Yap, Micronesia inhabitants had an extremely low incidence of schizophrenia. Yet when these same populations became partially westernized and foods such as wheat, barley and beer were introduced, their incidence of schizophrenia quickly reached European levels.
In 1976, Science published a study that showed schizophrenics who maintained a gluten-free, dairy-free diet, when challenged with gluten, experienced an interruption of their progress therapeutically. As soon as gluten was removed from the diet, improvement was again seen.
As we have discussed before, recent research from 2010 and 2011 has shown a specific association with gluten sensitivity, more prominent than even that seen with celiac disease, and schizophrenia. A full 20% of those with schizophrenia were found to be positive for anti-gliadin antibodies, a test that can reveal celiac disease but is less specific for the disease and more commonly seen in those with gluten sensitivity.
Finally, the most recent research from this year, published in World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, compared a large group of schizophrenics (950) to healthy control subjects (1,000) and discovered that the odds of being positive for anti-gliadin antibodies in the blood was over two times higher in schizophrenics.
It seems pretty clear, does it not, that the correlation is strong? Yet does every psychiatrist diagnosing someone with schizophrenia test them for gluten sensitivity? Sadly I doubt it, not to mention the other neurological diseases that could be caused by gluten.
But let’s get back to the mechanism: HOW does gluten create neurological problems.
1. It’s important to realize that wheat gliadin is just one of over 20,000 different proteins found in wheat. The proteins present in glutinous grains are not readily digestible in man - in fact they are not at all digestible.
Really? Yes. We may eat these grains, but we are not able to digest them more than partially.
Haven’t we been eating them ‘forever’? Why would we continue eating them if we can’t digest them?
Historically speaking, human evolution is 2.5 million years old. For 99.9% of that time, man has NOT eaten gluten. Therefore, it’s actually a rather new food for man and not one he can completely digest.
The pieces or peptides of the partially digested protein are can be inflammatory and disease producing in those sensitive to them. According the Dr Fasano, one such peptide induces cell death. Another causes the secretion of zonulin, the protein that causes leaky gut.
2. The incomplete protein digestion stimulates the immune system to make antibodies (these are defensive proteins made by the immune system to destroy foreign, toxic invaders) to attack the pieces of protein. The poor digestion, compounded by a leaky gut, results in these segments migrating out of the small intestine and into the general circulation. The proof of this is antibodies to gliadin being found in the blood.
3. It is these antibodies, now present in the bloodstream, that have been seen to react with neurological structures in the human body, in addition to the gliadin they were originally made to attack. A study published in Journal of Immunology discovered that the antibodies made against gliadin could bind to a protein found with the nerve fibers, resulting in, the authors believed, complications such as neuropathy, seizures, ataxia and behavioral changes.
Nutritional Neuroscience in 2004 found that the same gliadin antibodies were more prevalent in children with autism, causing, they posited, the neurological damage seen with the condition.
What percentage of the population has these pesky anti-gliadin antibodies? It is estimated that 27 percent of the general population but a whopping 57 percent of those individuals suffering from neurological issues has an immune system that make antibodies against gliadin.
Sayer Ji posed this question: “Is it possible that gluten-containing grains are adversely affecting the mental health of the world at large, perhaps mostly on a subclinical basis?” What he means by ‘subclinical’ are those suffering with symptoms but who have no formal diagnosis of a disease state.
Based on our clinical experience here at HealthNOW, I would say that is a very likely scenario. While no one is saying that a gluten reaction is the sole cause of every neurological problem faced by mankind, the link is a strong one and should not, in my opinion, be ignored.
What can you do?
First of all consider sharing this information with friends and family. I have seen so many individuals enjoy marked changes in their mood, behavior and neurological health as a result of eliminating gluten from their diet. While it’s frightening to consider the sheer number of people that could be suffering needlessly with serious conditions, on the same note it is exciting to think that if we got this information out widely to the general public, we could be doing a tremendous service for their health.
If you are wondering if gluten is affecting your mental or neurological health, do consider getting tested for both celiac and gluten sensitivity. If the test is negative (remember, these tests aren't perfect and they often miss those with a problem) still engage in a 30 day gluten elimination diet. You must be strict and aim for perfection when you do this. Please get armed with all the information you need such that you can avoid mistakes. Consider visiting this page on my website. It contains all the most common places that gluten can hide. Read it thoroughly, prepare your pantry and then start.
If you cannot get a lab test, definitely ‘test’ yourself with the 30 day elimination diet. Some people notice a difference in how they feel relatively quickly. Others require several weeks before noticing a change. Regardless, stick with it for 30 days and monitor if you feel better physically or mentally.
But don’t, please, negate your own experience when changing your diet. Feeling an improvement is a valid test in and of itself, and is perhaps all you really need to perhaps make a huge change in your health.
I hope you found this informative. Please share it with those you know and contact me with any questions or comments you may have. Here at HealthNOW we are a destination clinic. Patients come from across the country and internationally to receive care here. Therefore, you don’t need to live locally to be helped.
Dr. Vikki Petersen, DC, CCN
IFM Certified Practitioner
Founder of HealthNOW Medical Center
Co-author of “The Gluten Effect”
Author of the eBook: “Gluten Intolerance – What You Don’t Know May Be Killing You!”