What Gluten Can Do To Your Brain (Hint: It Isn’t Pretty)


Brain health problems have been skyrocketing lately.

Today, close to 20% of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder — and that stat is only increasing.

Depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million Americans. And Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

In fact, a 2013 report found that since 1979, deaths due to brain disease have increased 66% in men and a whopping 92% in women.

There’s one thing all these brain problems have in common: inflammation. There’s even a whole field of study, known as the cytokine model of cognitive function, which looks at how low-grade inflammation impacts brain health.

The foods we eat have a major role in our inflammation levels. And although there are many foods that will increase inflammation of the brain, arguably the biggest culprit is gluten.

This Is Your Brain On Gluten

Although just 1% of Americans have a diagnosis of celiac disease, it’s most likely vastly under-diagnosed. In fact, only 10% of people with the disease exhibit obvious GI symptoms. And research now suggests that celiac disease can present itself strictly as a neurological problem.

In reality, celiac disease is the extreme end of the gluten sensitivity-autoimmune spectrum — there’s also an estimated 1 in 20 Americans living with what’s called non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Gluten has been shown to increase levels of the protein zonulin in the gut leading to leaky gut syndrome. This gut permeability allows undigested food proteins and bacterial endotoxins to pass into the blood stream, activating an inflammatory-immune response in your body.

Elevated zonulin levels in the gut have been linked to elevated zonulin levels in the brain. Translation: A leaky gut can lead to a leaky brain. Once the blood-brain barrier has been breached, your brains immune system — glial cells — can be activated. Glial cells will then cause inflammatory cascades throughout the brain. (I cover this topic in more detail in Signs You Might Have A “Leaky Brain” + What To Do About It.)

In other words, gluten is a sort of gateway food that could allow other foods to pass through the gut and brain lining.

Why We’re Hearing More About Gluten Now

A report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explains how we’ve seen a rapid change in our world over a relatively short period of time. Our current food supply, soil depletion and environmental toxins have all been new introductions to human existence. Put another way, around 99% of our genes were formed before the development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago.

Researchers now argue that they’re essentially a mismatch from our genes. And more recent refining, hybridization, and genetic modification of the grain supply have likely only made things worse.

Our genes are living in a whole new world.

Bottom line: Wheat is not what it once was. And in our modern, toxic world, we have less wiggle room for unhealthy foods than generations before us. It’s just a matter of someone’s own genetic interaction with gluten that determines if, when and how a brain problem will be triggered.

What Now?

If you’re struggling with an unhealthy brain, here are some action steps to consider:

  1. Conduct comprehensive gluten labs.
    Basic gluten labs only test for alpha-gliadin antibodies. This is just one of about 24 different aspects of wheat that your body may be reacting against. A comprehensive wheat and gluten array will uncover different intolerances you may be having.
  2. Conduct food reactivity labs.
    Other gluten-free proteins can mimic gluten. Or, you might also be having a separate food reactivity — what is generally healthy for someone else may not be for you.
  3. Conduct a blood-brain barrier lab.
    Labs are available to assess blood-brain barrier permeability, which can contribute to a number of brain health problems.
  4. Avoid other brain-zapping foods.
    Gluten is not the only bad guy. Find out more about other foods and toxins that can hurt brain health.
  5. Eat brain-boosting foods.
    Instead, nourish your brain with some of these good food medicines, like eggs and organ meats.
  6. Consider a functional medicine evaluation.
    All of this can be overwhelming. Take advantage of a free phone or webcam evaluation to get your personal questions answered and see if functional medicine is right for you.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Originally posted on MindBodyGreen

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About Will Cole, DC

Dr. William Cole, DC, graduated from Southern California University of Health Sciences in Los Angeles, California. He has his post doctorate education and training in Functional Medicine and Clinical Nutrition. Dr. Cole consults in the Pittsburgh area and phone or webcam consultations for people around the world. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors and customizing health programs for chronic conditions such as thyroid issues, autoimmune, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, diabetes, heart disease and fibromyalgia. Visit for more information and subscribe to his free monthly Future Health Newsletter to stay plugged in with healthy tips and recipes.