We all know that celiac disease is a problem of the small intestine, but most of us are probably unaware that it could actually be the root cause of a whole host of neurological problems from brain fog, to tingling and numbness sensations in your extremities, to developmental delays and learning disorders, autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, movement disorders like ataxia, and even psychological issues from irritability or depression to schizophrenia. You may think these claims sound like nothing more than a bunch of smoke and screens coming from greedy alternative medicine self-help sites designed to sell you the latest vitamin and mineral supplements and get you on their own personal and highly costly gluten-free product bandwagon, but there are real scientific studies supporting these claims. In addition, there are a whole host of forums filled with people that have made recoveries from a variety of diseases and disorders by avoiding gluten.
Dr. Maios Hadjivassiliou, a recognized world authority on gluten sensitivity, reported in the journal, The Lancet, that “gluten sensitivity can be primarily and at times, exclusively a neurological disease.” That is, people can manifest gluten sensitivity by having issues with brain function without any gastrointestinal problems whatsoever. Dr. Hadjivassiliou indicates that the antibodies that a person has when they are gluten sensitive can be directly and uniquely toxic to the brain.
Since his original investigations in 1996, the recognition that gluten sensitivity can lead to disorders of brain function has led to a virtual explosion of scientific papers describing this relationship. Researchers in Israel have noted neurological problems in 51 percent of children with gluten sensitivity and further, describe a link between gluten sensitivity and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As authors in a recent issue of the journal, Pediatrics, stated in their research, “This study suggests that the variability of neurologic disorders that occur in celiac disease is broader than previously reported and includes softer and more common neurologic disorders including chronic headache, developmental delay, hypotonia and learning disorders or ADHD.”
The link between gluten sensitivity and problems with brain function, including learning disabilities, difficulty staying on task and even memory dysfunction, is actually not that difficult to understand. Gluten sensitivity is caused by elevated levels of antibodies against a component of gluten, gliadin. This antibody (anti-gliadin antibody) combines with gliadin when a person is exposed to any gluten containing food like wheat, barley or rye. Testing for the antibody can be performed in any doctor’s office. When the antibody combines with this protein, specific genes are turned on in a special type of immune cell in the body.
When these genes are turned on, inflammatory chemicals are created called cytokines, which are directly detrimental to brain function. In fact, elevated cytokines are seen in such devastating conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and even autism. Basically, the brain does not like inflammation and responds quite negatively to the presence of cytokines. Another problem with anti-gliadin antibody is that it can directly combine with specific proteins found in the brain. Specific brain proteins can look like the gliadin protein found in gluten-containing foods and the anti-gliadin antibody just can’t tell the difference. This direct role of anti-gliadin antibody in combining with specific proteins in the brain, has been described for decades and again leads to the formation of cytokines, the chemical mediators of inflammation. This is an example of turning on genes that ultimately function in a negative way in relation to brain health and function.