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Gluten and your brain – quick links

Zone food pyramid, 1997
Zone food pyramid, 1997

Many years ago when I first got enthusiastic about nutrition (specifically the zone diet) I received this story from a woman who’s brain fog and depression disappeared when she started the Zone diet. Here’s what she said:

“I am 49 years old, and ever since my teens I have suffered from depression, lack of energy, and mild overweight which have all gradually increased with age.  In the last five years I have developed severe back pain requiring regular pain relief, a painful right knee when climbing stairs and pain and stiffness in muscles especially when movement is commenced after a period of rest. I also suffered from broken sleep patterns combined with sleepiness during the day, and something I can only describe as a mental “fog”. In the 12 months prior to commencing the Zone diet I had developed shortness of breath and rising blood pressure. In general I felt awful.

I purchased the book Enter the Zone and started to follow the programme in mid February 1997. I noticed an improvement in energy levels from the third week.  By mid July 1997 I had lost 3 stone and all my other complaints have disappeared. Back pain, sore knees and all pain and stiffness in my muscles have gone. I feel happy and optimistic, I sleep soundly five or six hours a night and am mentally alert the rest of the time. I wake feeling refreshed each morning. I have heaps of energy for the first time in my life. My blood pressure is normal. I have never felt so utterly WELL.”

At the time it was one more amazing testimonial of the power of the zone diet, that had been so successful for me. If we have a look at the original Zone pyramid and recommended food we see:

Zone food pyramid, 1997

Grains, bread, starches – use sparingly
And in the food block list supplied in ‘Enter the Zone’ grains are in the ‘unfavourable’ carbohydrates – to be avoided.
In those early zone days, people often followed the zone diet with very accurately, and completely avoided the ‘unfavourable’ foods including grains, especially gluten grains.

About 3 years ago I heard heard about the NZ pediatrician and allergy specialist Dr Rodney Ford, and read his wonderful little book: ‘Full of it! The shocking truth about gluten’ (The brain-grain connection) He pointed out that the reason why so many people feel so good on low carb diets could be the elimination of grains. (I’d always put my early client’s success down to the reduction in carbohydrates and insulin and a better omega 3 to omega 6 ratio and the consequent increase in ‘good’ eicosanoid hormones. Although part of the story, I now see the gluten connection as the real reason this person has such great results)

Here is a great article from Dr Rodney Ford explaining the gut brain connection:
Gluten Causes Brain Disease! By Prof. Rodney Ford M.B., B.S., M.D., F.R.A.C.P.

The brain/nerve hypothesis
“The symptoms from gluten occur through its action on the nervous system”.

I propose that gluten-sensitivity is a brain condition. Each and every organ in your body has some form of brain/nerve control. I propose that gluten can injure the delicate nervous networks that control your guts functions. A malfunction will subsequently lead to all of the gut symptoms that have so well been described. In addition, gluten can also directly affect brain function, which leads to the primary neurological symptoms that are so commonly seen with gluten-sensitivity.

What is new?
There are a number of new ideas that I put forward. These are based on circumstantial evidence. They produce a unifying theory of the symptoms that are attributed to gluten toxicity.

* A brain disease
I consider that gluten-sensitivity is mostly a neurological problem. A major contribution to this debate is the realization that the brain has a central role in the expression of the symptoms that have, until now, been attributed to the local toxicity of gluten in the gut.
* A nerve disease
I propose that gluten-sensitivity is a nerve disease. There is a gigantic network of nerves that controls every function that your gut is programmed to do. There are as many nerve cells in your gut as there are in your head! (about 25 billion nerve cells). I call it your tummy brain (or gut brain). Your tummy brain can be directly damaged by gluten reactions. This is the cause of so many sore tummies and bowel troubles.
* A wide spectrum of neurological manifestations
For decades, there have been reports of unexplained brain and nerve symptoms which are associated with celiac disease. Although these associations have been described, there has been no universal mechanism proposed. However, if gluten is seen as a neurotoxin, then the explanation has been found.
* A very common disease
Reactions to gluten have recently been documented to be extremely common. About one-in-ten people (as ascertained by blood donor studies) have high levels of gluten antibodies in their blood. My clinical studies have arrived at this same high number of gluten-sensitive people. Others have data to show that it is even more prevalent.

Also by Dr Ford The gluten syndrome: a neurological disease

Since Dr Ford wrote this further published articles confirm this view e.g. Gluten sensitivity: from gut to brain. From the abstract:
Although neurological manifestations in patients with established coeliac 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. Furthermore, the concept of extraintestinal presentations without enteropathy has only recently become accepted.

Jamie Scott yesterday posted this must read article Gluten – it messes with your head, compiling a number of articles and studies on the brain gluten connection. Including this website with excellent information The Gluten Doctors Blog

And just today Robb Wolf posted this story: Real Life Testimonial: No more meds or anxiety, where Christina found her panic attacks and anxiety disappeared after a month of paleo eating.
A quick google search found others have reported similar relief from anxiety after eliminating gluten from their diets:
Anxiety Relief From Going Gluten Free One comment is surprising “My primary gluten symptom was and still is anxiety. As long as I am gluten free I am also anxiety free. It is common to have anxiety along with gluten, and to have it go away when going gluten free. Yay!”
Note – this woman’s primary gluten symptom was anxiety.

And this study shows: Anxiety but not depression decreases in coeliac patients after one-year gluten-free diet: a longitudinal study.

And this anecdote from the mother of a 7 year old with behaviour issues and constipation:
“…He is 7 years old and has always had BM issues. A friend mentioned the gluten-free diet to help his constipation and within a week he was regular! That was October of 2009 and we were strictly on the gluten-free diet for a year. Over the summer, we tried to ease a few things back into the diet just to see if it affected him. He would go days without a BM and get very agitated and unruly. So we would get back on the diet. But today it hit me that when he is off of his gluten-free diet even slightly, he wets the bed, has bad dreams, acts out by raging and throwing things which are NOT even close to his “normal” calm little self. These are all things a child psychologist said were anxiety-related issues. I don’t want to put him on anxiety meds if gluten is the culprit! But any doctor I have mentioned it to, has pretty much blown it off as not being related. Why are doctors not wanting to know more about how much gluten is really affecting people! Not just celiacs but non-celiacs who have a sensitivity, if that’s what you call it when behavior changes occur.”

For those who want to see more evidence – a large selection of study abstracts is collected here: The Case Against Gluten: For Everyone

If you suffer any brain issues – it could be smart to check if you are gluten sensitive (see Dr Ford’s site for gluten tests) or trial a strict gluten free diet.


  1. My partner has had no more panic attacks since commencing a gluten-free diet 4 years ago. He was negative for coeliac serology but eating gluten induced abdominal swelling (not bloating) plus pain as though a rope was being tightened around his belly.

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