Many people think they don’t need to go gluten-free because eating wheat doesn’t give them gut problems. However, the area of the body most often damaged by gluten isn’t the gut but the brain and nervous system. If you struggle with anxiety, depression, brain fog, memory loss, fatigue, or other brain-based disorders, it’s worth ruling out whether a gluten sensitivity is attacking your brain and causing symptoms.
Studies have linked gluten sensitivity with numerous brain-based and psychiatric disorders, including movement disorders (such as tics and dystonias), neuromyelitis, multiple sclerosis, vertigo (dizziness), neuropathy, neuromuscular disease, migraines, hearing loss, dementia, restless leg syndrome, schizophrenia, and other disorders in almost every part of the nervous system studied.
Three ways gluten sensitivity can damage the brain and nervous system
Gluten sensitivity can damage the brain and nervous system in at least three ways.
Cross-reactivity. Perhaps the most destructive is through cross-reactivity. This happens when the immune system mistakes nerve cells for gluten because both have similar structures. This means if you are gluten intolerant, every time you eat it the immune system attacks both gluten and brain tissue, depending on the site of the attack. This develops into an autoimmune condition.
Transglutaminase 6 reactivity. In another scenario, gluten triggers an immune response to transglutaminase, an enzyme that both binds proteins in the body but also helps digest wheat. Transglutaminase-6 (TG6) is found throughout the central nervous system. Sometimes a gluten sensitivity involves reacting to transglutaminase in the digestive tract. This can trigger an attack against TG6 in the brain and nervous system. Transglutaminase is also used as a glue in processed meats (such as chicken nuggets), and people who react to transglutaminase may also react to this form of it.
Leaky blood-brain barrier. The third way gluten can damage the brain is by breaking down the protective layer around the brain called the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier acts as a gatekeeper allowing necessary compounds in and out of the brain while keeping out harmful things. The inflammation from a gluten sensitivity can break down this barrier so that harmful substances can enter the environment of the brain and trigger inflammation and damage to brain tissue. This is called a leaky blood-brain barrier.
How to stop gluten from damaging your brain
One of the best ways to know whether gluten is causing attacks against your brain is to go strictly gluten-free for at least six months. Due to the months-long inflammatory nature of gluten, it does not work if you eat a little bit of gluten now and then. You must be very strict.
You can also test for gluten sensitivity, but keep in mind standard doctors’ tests only test for one portion of gluten — alpha gliadin. Research shows people react to at least 12 different portions of gluten. In order to thoroughly screen for a gluten sensitivity, you must order your test through a specialty lab.
Lastly, some people who react to gluten also react to other foods just as badly. The most common secondary food is dairy. Sometimes it’s an issue of the immune system mistaking certain foods for gluten (dairy and other grains are common culprits). Sometimes it’s a sensitivity of its own. If you tested positive for gluten sensitivity or don’t feel better on a gluten-free diet, you may want to consider the more thorough approach of the autoimmune diet.
If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, fatigue, brain fog, memory loss, or other brain-based symptoms, ask my office how we can help you.