by Dr. Will Cole
Brain health problems have skyrocketed in recent years. Today, close to 20% of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder – and that statistic is only increasing. For example, depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million Americans. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. What’s more, a 2013 report found that since 1979, deaths due to brain disease have increased 66% in men and a whopping 92% in women.
Yikes! But we have clues to solving this problem right in front of us. One of them is the thing all these brain problems have in common: inflammation. There’s an entire field of study devoted to this problem known as the cytokine model of cognitive function, which looks at how low-grade inflammation impacts brain health.
And one of the biggest influences? The foods that we eat. There are many foods that will increase inflammation of the brain, but arguably the biggest culprit in this current time 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 doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it something you either have or don’t have. Instead, celiac disease is the extreme end of the gluten sensitivity-autoimmune spectrum. For example, the estimated 1 in 20 Americans living with what’s called non-celiac gluten sensitivity are likely somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, reacting to gluten but without having yet suffered the extreme small intestine destruction necessary for a celiac disease diagnosis.
We know that gluten has been shown to increase levels of the protein zonulin in the gut, which leads to leaky gut syndrome due to its effects on the tight junctions of the intestinal lining. This gut permeability allows undigested food proteins and bacterial endotoxins to pass into the blood stream, activating an inflammatory-immune response in the body.
Elevated zonulin levels in the gut have also 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 brain’s immune system – specifically its glial cells – can be activated. Glial cells can then cause an inflammatory cascade throughout the brain. I cover this topic in more detail in my previous article.
In other words, gluten is a sort of gateway food that could allow other foods to pass through the gut and brain lining, setting you on the autoimmune spectrum and on a course towards eventual disease.
Why we’re hearing more about gluten now
Gluten isn’t new. It’s been around since wheat has been around. Why is it such a problem 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, weakening our ability to handle assaults, both environmental and dietary.
Put another way, around 99% of our genes were formed before the development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago, which means that our current environment may well be a mismatch to our genes. Add more recent refining, hybridization, and genetic modification of the grain supply, and the situation gets worse.
Our genes are living in a whole new world. 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 can you do?
If you’re struggling with symptoms of an unhealthy brain, here are some action steps to consider taking now:
1. Ask your doctor about comprehensive gluten labs.
Basic gluten albs 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 can uncover the exact nature of the intolerances you may be experiencing.
2. Ask your doctor about food reactivity labs.
Other gluten-free proteins can mimic gluten, tricking your body into reacting the same way as it reacts against gluten. Or, you might also be having a separate food reactivity. Remember that what is generally healthy for someone else may not be healthy for you.
3. Ask your doctor about a blood-brain barrier lab.
Labs are available to assess blood-brain barrier permeability, which, when present, can contribute to a number of brain 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.
Nourish your brain with some of these good food medicines, like eggs and organ meats.
6. Consider a functional medicine evaluation.
Knowing what to do and what not to do to avoid the toxic effects of gluten and other inflammatory foods can be overwhelming. Take advantage of a free phone or webcam evaluation to get your personal questions answered and see if functional medicine might be right for you.
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