You’ve had extremely unpleasant digestive symptoms. Been exhausted, bloated, and losing weight, strangely. Nothing serious going on, you think. Maybe it’s all the running around feeling stressed, you think. Sound familiar? Think again.
Did you know that non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is around 6 times more common than coeliac disease and can manifest in the brain and nervous system? (1) This could be the culprit behind your symptoms like painful bloating, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, headaches and brain fog among others – a condition that remains largely undiagnosed and untreated.
What are the effects of gluten on the body?
Firstly, gluten damages the brain by a number of mechanisms – it triggers gut bacterial imbalance and gut inflammation by increasing the expression of zonulin which widens the gaps between cells in the intestinal barrier. The increase in intestinal permeability allows lipopolysaccharides produced by the gut bacteria to leak into the systemic circulation leading to accumulation in the blood which can then reach the brain causing neuroinflammation. (2)
Then, if you have leaky gut you are more likely to have leaky brain which allows substances to pass through the blood brain barrier that wouldn’t normally pass through. Access through these important barriers can also activate the immune system to start attacking the body if you are predisposed to autoimmunity – lose/lose situation!
This neuroinflammation can lead to brain dysfunction, cognitive impairment and increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease by promoting the deposition of amyloid plaques in the brain. The alteration in gut microbiota and their communication with hormones, neurotransmitters and neuropeptides affect the way we think, feel and behave via the signals sent to our brain from the gut via the vagus nerve known as the ‘gut-brain-axis’.
So, your gut and brain are connected physically through millions of nerves, most importantly the vagus nerve. The gut and its microbes control inflammation and make many different compounds that can affect brain health as well as the nervous system – affecting stress levels, anxiety, mood, energy, concentration and more.
Effects of gluten on the brain and nerves
One way to find out if gluten has a negative effect on your brain, and/or if you have sensitivity, is to try an elimination diet. Cutting out certain foods and keeping a food journal can be an extremely helpful and easy way for you to recognise triggers.
You may find that symptoms disappear after you remove gluten from your diet, and on the plus side, nowadays it’s a lot easier to try gluten-free recipes and meals. It’s always best to consult a Nutritional Therapist or GP should you have any questions or concerns.
What foods help the gut-brain-axis?
Gluten-free ingredients that mimic foods that normally contain gluten are not recommended as these usually contain unhealthy, unnatural ingredients – all those ‘low-this’ ‘low-that’ meals you find in supermarkets, so be aware.
Rather, a nutrient-dense diet that contains lots of vegetables, some fruit, healthy fats and well-sourced animal protein is a good framework to begin starting a gluten-free diet. (3) Also, an anti-inflammatory, gluten-free diet such as a Mediterranean Diet or Paleo Diet can help heal and support the gut and provide necessary nutrients. Many people seek pre and probiotics to help restore gut flora balance.
When it comes to your gut health, always seek the advice of your GP or Nutritional Therapist to help you figure out the right plan for you.