Dr. Doni Wilson explains the scientific connection between gluten sensitivity, depression, and other neurological problems – and how to recover without drugs.
They all had gluten sensitivity.
Always looking to identify underlying causes and patterns in how our bodies respond to stress, I searched for evidence that gluten sensitivity could negatively impact the nervous system, where mood dysregulation originates. Sure enough, I found numerous reports of patients recovering from symptoms of mental health conditions by avoiding gluten. But despite such research, very few patients – or doctors – have drawn an official connection between the two. That’s why I wanted to write this article today.
In this article, I’m going to discuss:
- The kinds of neurological symptoms that have been connected to gluten sensitivity
- The scientific reasons why these symptoms can be triggered by gluten consumption
- The connection between gluten, leaky gut, and the nervous system
- Why doctors often miss the connection between neurological problems and diet
- The gluten recovery process
NOTE: If you would like to learn more about the basics of gluten, gluten sensitivity, and gluten sensitivity testing, you may also wish to read my earlier article “Why Are So Many People Going Gluten-Free?”
Neurological Symptoms Associated with Gluten Sensitivity
British neurologist and university professor Dr. Marios Hadjivassiliou has presented groundbreaking reports on the effects of gluten on the nervous system. According to his research, at least 30% of patients with nervous system issues have gluten sensitivity1 – often without any digestive issues. In addition, because neurological symptoms are so common in patients with Celiac Disease, he also believes Celiac should be considered a neurological condition.2,3 Today, hundreds of other researchers are following suit with the intention of discovering more about how gluten affects the nervous system.
Following this research, some of the symptoms/conditions that have been associated with gluten sensitivity include:4,5,6,7,8,9
- Brain fog
- Bipolar disorder
- PMS/PMDD (dysmorphic disorder)
- Ataxia (a neurological condition that can affect balance, co-ordination, and speech)
- Neuropathy (numbness, tingling, ringing in ears, etc.)
- Decreased memory; dementia
- ADHD and spectrum disorders
The Science Behind Gluten and Neurological Symptoms
As mentioned in my article “Why Are So Many People Going Gluten-Free?”, 50% of people with gluten issues do NOT show digestive issues. It’s true that gluten can cause leaky gut (intestinal permeability), which can also cause digestive problems like diarrhea, bloating, cramping, etc., but this is not always the case. For some, gluten sensitivity/leaky gut issues may manifest solely as symptoms related to the nervous system. There are two major scientific reasons why this is the case:
- The gut-brain axis. It was once thought that the nervous system had “one-way” communication with the digestive system, i.e. the brain tells the digestive system what to do. But relatively new research suggests there may be a “gut-brain axis,” in which the brain and the gut mutually send messages back and forth.10 If there is trouble in the digestive system – such as symptoms arising from food sensitivities and/or imbalanced bacteria – an “alarm” is first communicated from the gut to the brain, and then the brain sends a signal to the hormone system, immune system, and/or nervous system.
- Genetic propensity. The way your nervous, digestive, and immune systems respond to gluten is also partially determined (some say about 10%) by genetic predisposition.11 For example, people whose immune systems are more reactive to gluten are more likely to develop leaky gut; and when they do, it is likely to be more severe than if they didn’t have that propensity. Going one step further, if you have a genetic predisposition to be gluten sensitive as well as to get headaches, you will more likely experience headaches when you are exposed to gluten. Similarly, if you are genetically predisposed to gluten sensitivity as well as to a neurotransmitter imbalance, inflammation of the nerves, or memory loss, you are more likely to experience those symptoms.
Gluten, Leaky Gut, and the Nervous System
Let’s take a closer look at what happens when you are gluten-sensitive and you eat something containing gluten.
Imagine you’ve just eaten a piece of bread. The bread will start to be digested in your mouth, then in your stomach, and finally in your small intestine. Once digested, the glucose, protein, and fat molecules from the bread traverse through (or between) the cells of your intestinal walls, to get into your body and blood stream.
If, however, your body or mind is stressed, your body will not digest food as efficiently and the gluten will not be fully digested when it reaches your intestines. When that happens, the partially digested gluten triggers the production of a substance called zonulin, which sends out a signal to open the spaces between the cells lining your intestines. We’re still trying to figure out WHY zonulin does this, but even if we don’t yet know the reason, we know the effect: Undigested food particles leak through to the tissue on the other side of the intestinal walls. Thus, zonulin essentially causes intestinal permeability – leaky gut.12
At this point, if you are genetically predisposed to your immune system reacting to gluten, a huge immune response will occur. Few people realize that the area around our intestines is the place MOST of our immune system lives. This immune response initially causes inflammation, i.e. redness and swelling in the gut. But inflammation doesn’t just stay in your digestive system. It can spread like a drop of ink, travelling through your blood and tissue anywhere in your body – including your brain and nervous system.
In fact, your brain/nervous system is often the first target of any immune response. This is why many gluten-sensitive patients experience headaches, mood changes, or other neurological symptom within hours – or even minutes – after consuming gluten.
A reaction to gluten will also travel through the body via the Vagal nerve and hormones (such as cortisol). This results in a vicious cycle of internal stress, where the immune reaction in the digestive system triggers symptoms in the nervous system and, conversely, the inflammation in the nervous system and elevated cortisol perpetuates the symptoms in the digestive system.
As you may remember from a prior article, gluten also disrupts the healthy bacteria in the gut. With a leaky intestinal lining, this means the overgrowing and unwanted bacteria that produce substances toxic to our bodies can move across the intestinal lining, causing further inflammation and disruptions to your nervous system.
To add fuel to the fire, while undigested food and bacteria toxins leak through the intestinal lining, the things you want to pass through the intestinal lining (i.e. nutrients) DON’T. They are not absorbed and distributed properly, leaving you deficient in nutrients essential to your nervous system, such as iron, vitamin D, B vitamins, and others. Healthy fats, also essential to your nervous system, are also not absorbed as well when you have leaky gut.
Furthermore, serotonin (produced mainly in the intestines) decreases, which can lead to an increased risk of mental health issues.
Knowing all this, it is no small wonder that so many new patients tell they have been experiencing neurological symptoms for years, and they never feel any better despite taking the medications their doctors prescribed. One reason why many people’s symptoms do not improve is they never addressed their diet.
Why Doctors Often Miss the Connection Between Neurological Problems and Diet
Despite all this research, many health practitioners still do not understand, recognize or acknowledge the connection between diet and mood, headaches or memory issues. Some doctors will even deny there could be any connection between neurological problems and food, and even tell their patients food is not the issue. It can also be hard for patients, who have been struggling with neurological symptoms, to believe that gluten could be playing a role.
But in my mind, I think, “How can neurological problems NOT be food-related?”
Naturopathic doctors do not have the same philosophy about the body and health as mainstream medicine. Naturopathic doctors look at the body as a whole, the interconnected systems within the body, and the science behind the initial cause of a health issue.
A medical doctor might say they do that too, but they tend to focus on what medication might counter the symptoms, rather than looking at dietary factors that may be triggering or worsening those symptoms, or dietary changes that could relieve (or, in some cases, eliminate) them. But mainstream medical doctors receive very little training in nutrition, which means it’s not something they think about in general. Plus, as mentioned, this information about gluten and the nervous system is relatively new, and is not yet common knowledge in the medical community.
Medical doctors are essential and life-saving, especially in acute situations. But when it comes to chronic neurological conditions – such as anxiety, depression, migraines, and memory loss – I firmly believe naturopathic medicine and the philosophies behind it are leading the way towards long-term solutions.
The Recovery Process – Is Avoiding Gluten Enough?
Many new patients ask me, “I’ve been avoiding gluten for a year, and I feel about 50% better. How do I get to 100%?” I have found that to recover completely from gluten-related issues, you must also address all the damage caused by gluten. In addition to avoiding gluten, you also need to:
- Heal the intestinal lining (heal leaky gut)
- Restore the bacterial balance in the gut
- Restore optimum nutrient absorption levels
- Reduce inflammation (including in the nervous system)
As there many components to gluten recovery, I recommend working closely with a naturopathic doctor who can guide you step-by-step through the process. When I work with patients on this, I help them identify which foods to avoid, whether we need to address unwanted bacteria, and which nutrients and neurotransmitters need attention. Depending on the severity of imbalances in bacteria, immune system, nervous system, and nutrients, full recovery can take months to years. But be assured, recovery is possible when you take this holistic approach.
Programs and Products to Help with Gluten Recovery
As so many of my patients come to me with gluten-related problems, I have developed many products and programs over the years to assist them with gluten recovery. All of the following products are available in my online shop, or you might find similar products at your favorite natural health shop:
Gluten-Free Pea Protein Powder
When shifting your diet away from gluten, having a gluten-free protein shake once or twice a day can provide your body with easily absorbed nutrients, without enflaming your intestinal lining or triggering your immune system.
Leaky Gut Healing Powder
Of the many nutrients/herbs that can help heal leaky gut, the three I believe are best when you first start out are glutamine, DGL licorice, and aloe, as they are the least likely to cause a negative reaction. You could take these supplements separately, but I have combined them into one product in my Leaky Gut Healing Powder.
Digesting your food properly is essential not only to healing leaky gut, but also to resolving nutrient deficiencies and decreasing inflammation. Similase GFCF digestive enzymes provide superior support of hidden gluten and casein digestion as well as the digestion of carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber.
The bacteria in your intestines have more influence over your body, immune system, and nervous system than your own genes. Because gluten-related issues can decrease the level of “good” bacteria in your gut, we need to help replenish and fortify those bacteria. A healthy gut biome will help heal leaky gut, increase nutrient levels, decrease inflammation, and enable your nervous system to recover. Ther-Biotic Detoxification Support can help restore balance, and then can be used for daily maintenance as well.
Stress Remedy Program
I created my Stress Remedy Program based on my own gluten recovery process, which has helped me stay healthy for many years, even when I’m stressed. This program includes a 21-day gluten-free meal plan, daily emails to help you integrate changes into your life, as well as ALL the above products (Pea Protein Shake Powder, Leaky Gut Healing Powder, digestive enzymes, and probiotics).
I hope this article has given you some valuable information about why you may be suffering from mood-related and other neurological health issues, and has made you curious to investigate whether gluten in contributing to your ongoing health problems.
The best way to find out for sure is to work with a naturopathic doctor who can run the appropriate food sensitivity tests, and guide you to make dietary changes and introduce the right supplements. I also like to do a genetic health profile with my patients (something not many other practitioners do), to see what we can learn about their genetic predispositions. If you don’t have a naturopathic doctor, and would like to speak with me about becoming a patient, you can book an appointment HERE.
Recovering from gluten is not an overnight endeavor. I encourage you to think of it as a “transition,” a journey back to wellness. Gradually, you will make many changes in your diet and lifestyle, learning more along the way. Be gentle and patient with yourself. You are in this for yourself, not for anyone else. With diligence, you will see the benefits of improved mood, energy, and memory, and discover what it is like to be less reliant on medications – and more empowered by nature.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to subscribe to my Weekly Wellness Wisdom newsletter, to be alerted whenever I post a new article. When you do, you will also receive a free gift – my 35-page eBook about recovering from stress.
Until next time,
10th August 2017
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