Can a Gluten-Free Diet Improve Brain Health?

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Everyone wants to have a healthy brain that functions optimally. We all want to improve our focus, clarity, memory, and ability to learn and process new information. We also want to decrease our risk for depression, memory loss, dementia, and mood disorders.

On a larger scale, our quality of life depends on our brain health. To live to age 90 but experience declining brain health starting at age 60 — which is when most people believe cognitive decline begins — is tragic enough. But the reality is that such decline begins much earlier: Studies show a slow decline starting as early as our late 20s and further decline in our 40s.

If your mind feels like it’s a wheel with a crowbar in it, you’re unlikely to achieve your goals. And mood disorders and other neurological conditions make relationships challenging, if not impossible. Someone with severe Alzheimer’s can be alive and lose everything that matters. The brain is the most vital part of what we know as life itself — even more vital than a beating heart.

Causes of cognitive decline are many, from lack of exercise to toxic food. In this article, however, we’ll focus on just one potential cause: gluten.

Gluten’s Effects on the Brain

According to one set of researchers, “Although neurological manifestations in patients with established celiac disease have been reported since 1966, it was not until 30 years later that, in some individuals, gluten sensitivity was shown to manifest solely with neurological dysfunction.” The significant element of this study is that the researchers report it affects the mainstream population, not just those with celiac disease.

The myth remains that celiac disease is rare and that it has just a positive or negative diagnosis. But researchers estimate that non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS, is up to six times more prevalent than celiac disease and that gluten has the same devastating effects on the brains of those with NCGS. That’s a lot of people walking around with “grain brain,” as neurologist David Perlmutter so perfectly termed the effect. Doctors can even see brain lesions in MRIs on those with gluten-damaged brains.

As far back as 1978, scientists have documented radioactively labeled gluten protein showing up in the brain as an exorphin. Again, that’s everyone, not just the “hyperexcitable celiac brain,” which does improve on a gluten-free diet. Small peptides act like opioids — think “this is your brain on wheat.” These peptides bind to opioid receptors of the brain as heroin and OxyContin do, but they don’t provide pain relief. Instead, they just trigger your appetite, giving you uncontrollable cravings for foods with a high glycemic index.

In addition, it’s easy to see why attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has been linked to gluten, to the point that the Journal of Attention Disorders suggests “All ADHD-like symptomatology patients should be tested for CD.

We can measure gluten damage in the brain three ways: instantly, by observing radioactively labeled gluten causing brain inflammation on an MRI; in the short term, through brain lesions and blood flow abnormalities; and in the long term, as seen in many epidemiological studies.

For example, a Scandinavian study followed 2,427 kids — all with equal economic, social, and environmental factors — for 21 years. Five percent of the kids with celiac disease had university or college degrees versus 23 percent of the non-CD kids, and 28 percent of the CD kids were in managerial or professional positions versus 45 percent of the non-CD kids. The gluten-affected kids were also noted to have a “significant increase in disruptive behavioral and depressive disorders.”

Underachievement with a gluten brain is one issue, but mental health is a bigger problem, with the latest published studies bearing titles like “Gluten Psychosis: Confirmation of a New Clinical Entity.” Gluten psychosis — does that sound like optimal brain health?

It’s Not Just CD Patients — Gluten Affects Everyone

It’s important to note that many of these studies are showing brain damage in patients who have been confirmed as negative for CD. According to the study on gluten psychosis, “NCGS is a syndrome diagnosed in patients with symptoms that respond to removal of gluten from the diet, after celiac disease and wheat allergy have been excluded. NCGS has been related to neuro-psychiatric disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, and depression.” The newest gluten studies are heavily focused on neurological disorders affecting both celiac and non-celiac patients, and they are consistently seeing the same level of inflammation and mortality rates — if not rates two or three times higher — in the NCGS patients.

One of the most important takeaways of this article is that gluten affects 100 percent of the population on some level. A 2015 study found that 100 percent of patients showed gut damage in the form of intestinal permeability just 30 to 120 minutes after eating gluten. Gut damage translates to a number of neurological disorders, though it most often leads to mood disorders. Looking at population studies on an even wider scale, a study found that “in cultures where gluten grains are rarely eaten, schizophrenia is rare or non-existent.” And when gluten is introduced to cultures that hadn’t eaten it before, such as the South Pacific Islands, schizophrenia goes from 1 in 30,000 to 1 in 100.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, and the culprit isn’t modern wheat nor glyphosate. During World War II, more than 30 years before glyphosate existed and 20 years before pesticides were used on a large scale, wheat shortages showed us a decrease in hospitalization rates for schizophrenia. When the war was over and wheat became available again, hospitalization rates went right back up.

The brain is “particularly vulnerable“ to gluten. Even among celiac patients, two-thirds of the time, it’s a neurological disorder with absolutely no gastrointestinal symptoms, which is one of the reasons it remains undiagnosed for years.

Gluten causes every type of neurological damage from what can be considered mild, as in anxiety, to severe, as in dementia. Depression remains “its most common neuropsychiatric disturbance.” 

The Path to Better Brain Health

All this information might seem overwhelming. But what if I told you that the challenge in writing this article wasn’t finding evidence — it was containing it? The tough part was choosing which 30 studies to reference out of the thousands that exist.

Fear not: There is good news! You can improve your brain health, and the solution to this problem is easy and noninvasive, and you can start working on it this instant. All you need to do is return to real food — food that’s pure and gluten-free. If you’re unsure where to start, follow these tips to get off on the right foot:

1.Outsource your meals.

If you’re totally unfamiliar with gluten-free eating, consider letting someone else do the heavy lifting for you. Meal delivery services such as Metabolic Meals can provide you with 100 percent gluten-free options that are fresh, chef-prepared, and delivered right to your door. There’s no better way to make the transition quickly.

2.Research your options.

Starting from scratch can be overwhelming, but researching the different strategies for going gluten-free is important. Consider first looking up gluten-free versions of your favorite meals. Love apple pie? Recipes using almond flour abound. Craving a burger? Look for gluten-free bun brands, and make sure there’s no gluten filler in the patty. Use this strategy to ease into your research on alternatives.

3.Make a comprehensive list.

Now that you’re more comfortable with researching, make an accurate and complete list of what is and isn’t gluten-free. Consider it your new shopping companion. Always check ingredient labels, even if you think something should be gluten-free — you never know when a brand might sneak it in. It might take time to get used to always reading labels, but be patient. Your health is worth it.

4.Focus on anti-inflammatory foods.

When you’re in the grocery store, be sure to grab items like turmericginger, and colorful fruits and vegetables. These foods will help decrease inflammation and improve your brain health.

5.Don’t buy every supplement you see.

While most supplements promoting brain health won’t hurt you, they likely will act as a diversion from the more effective plan of going gluten-free. A lot of products make big promises, but they don’t have adequate studies nor long-term proven results. Look for options with scientific evidence of success, such as ginseng and MCT oil as brain food and vitamin D as an anti-inflammatory and immune modulator.

6.Do focus on the gut-brain connection.

The connection between your brain and your digestive system is indisputably critical, making probiotics a key element in brain health, even as a treatment for schizophrenia. Ensure that you get enough probiotics in your diet through fermented vegetables, kombucha, or kimchi. We also know that amino acids play an important role in alleviating symptoms of depression and other neurological issues, so include those in your diet as well.

7.Remember to enjoy your food.

It’s easy to get caught up in researching and data and lose the pleasure that food can provide, but that isn’t necessary. If you simply adjust your diet to include a wide variety of natural, organic foods along with some high-quality supplements, you can still enjoy every meal you eat. You don’t need to obsess or study enough to earn a biology degree — just focus on the basics, and you’ll improve your health without too much stress.

When discussing the process for healthier eating, many people suggest “eating things your grandparents ate.” But going back two generations isn’t enough. Going back two millennia isn’t even enough: 2,000 years ago, Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia had already identified CD as “Koiliakos,” or “suffering of the bowels.”

Don’t go back to your grandparent’s time — go back 50,000 years, long before gluten, when we were wild, free, happy, and healthy. Replicate those gluten-free food habits, and you’ll enjoy the same health we all once did, when food provided both sustenance and joy.

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