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Gluten May Threaten Your Brain

The future of the American brain looks murky. One in 10 children reportedly suffers Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and millions are taking ADHD medication.1 At the same time, the memories of many older Americans have started to falter as they begin to experience the mind meltdown known as dementia. The possible common factor that may be driving a portion of this collective brain dysfunction: our boundless appetite for bread and other gluten-containing foods.

Grain Brain

It was once thought that if you experienced a reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, the effect on your health stemmed from the resultant digestive difficulties. Experts believed that when your digestion suffered because of foods made with gluten-containing grain (pizza, cookies, bread, crackers, etc.), your brain, in turn, might be harmed because you weren’t absorbing the proper nutrients for brain health.

But scientists have now found that gluten can cause inflammation and damage in nerve and brain tissue without apparently instigating significant digestive issues. According to researchers who have analyzed studies of gluten reactions, often “… there is no clear relationship with nutrient deficiency and a precise mechanism for the neurological changes has not been defined.”2 In other words, after you eat a meal containing gluten, your immune system may begin to attack nerve and brain tissue without an observable reaction in the walls of the digestive tract.

Gluten and Attention Deficit

Because of these kinds of findings, more and more researchers are coming to believe that a first line of defense against brain problems may be a gluten-free diet. For instance, when European researchers examined 67 people with ADHD in Italy, they found that 15 percent of them had full-blown celiac, the autoimmune reaction to gluten. This is a significantly high rate since celiac is thought to occur in a little less than 1 percent of the general population. When they put these people, who ranged in age from 7 to 42 years, on a gluten-free diet they found that there was a “… significant improvement in their behavior and function compared to the period before celiac diagnosis and treatment…”3

These results led to the experimenters’ conclusion that “… celiac disease should be included in the ADHD symptom checklist.”

Other common foods may also be adding to the ADHD problem. A study in the Netherlands and Belgium found that carefully controlling the diets of children with ADHD and eliminating problem foods improved the mental performance of two of three of the kids in the study.4 These researchers stress that parents should consult knowledgeable healthcare providers when limiting the foods children eat to make sure they receive adequate nutrition. But their research is further evidence that what kids eat is having a strong influence on their academic performance and behavior.

Prescription Ban

Another sign that something is seriously wrong with our brain health: Use of Adderall, an amphetamine ADHD medication, is so out of control that Duke University has banned its use “to enhance academic performance.”5 Meanwhile, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that 60 percent of children with ADHD are being treated with these types of medication.

Instead of figuring out natural ways to help kids with ADHD, American parents are medicating them. As Benedetto Vitiello, M.D., of NIMH points out, "Stimulant medications work well to control ADHD symptoms, but they are only one method of treatment for the condition.” Vitiello’s research has found that among American children from ages 6 to 18, about one in 20 is now on ADHD medication. Even some preschoolers are being given these drugs.6

I know that many people find the fact that wheat, the simple grain contained in seemingly innocuous foods like toast, rolls, crackers and pizza crust, can be wreaking havoc with so many people’s brains and nervous systems. If I hadn’t experienced my own brush with gluten-induced dementia, I might have trouble believing it, too. But you can go back decades and find that researchers have steadily compiled evidence that gluten can, in fact, make your immune system destroy your brain. For example, in 1991 scientists in Finland identified celiac patients who suffered “intellectual deterioration rang(ing) from moderate to severe and diffuse cerebral or cerebellar atrophy… found on brain CT.”7

As those scientists admitted, “…the pathogenetic mechanisms are obscure…” But although we don’t understand how gluten performs its nefarious destruction we do know that these brain problems are growing in number and they threaten our future.

2 Freeman JF, “Neurological disorders in adult celiac disease,” Can J Gastroenterol 2008 November; 22(11):909-911

3 Niederhofer H. Association of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Celiac Disease: A Brief Report. Prim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2011; 13(3).

4 Pelsser LM, Frankena K, et al. “Effects of a restricted elimination diet on the behavior of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (INCA study): a randomized controlled trial. The Lancet, Vol 377, Issue 9764, pgs 494-503.

Filed Under: Alternative MedicineBrain HealthEasy Health Digest™Gluten and CeliacMemory and Brain HealthMental and Cognitive HealthNutrition

About the Author: Carl Lowe has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.

Facebook Conversations

  • naina

    what are the food safe to consume.thanks

  • Dawn

    Google “gluten free diet”.

  • Shirley Gekler

    Carl Lowe: One would think it would be easy to eliminate gluten from our diets, but we are such creatures of habit.–Eliminating wheat, rye, and barley products simply takes a complete U-turn in our eating habits. — Giving up all of those favourite bakery items, sandwichs, cakes, pies all of which include gluten, is not an easy task for most of us. — Does this in fact become an addiction?

    When we take out the gluten items, we still have many foods to eat, but we must adjust our cooking habits which may not be especially easy but certainly worth the effort when our health is at stake.

    I believe that we are seeing more gluten now is because as I understand it there is much more gluten in the flours today than in past years as a result of the GMO practices in todays agriculture crops.

    The fact that gluten is now being connected to ADHD in children and perhaps dementia in older people, it is more important than ever to change our habits. The pitfalls of using drugs get rid of the symptoms but nothing for the cause of the problem.

    Gluten is often connected to celiac disease, but we now know that with some people the effects are showing in ADHD and dementia without any other symptoms.

    Today, we have a number of products that are marked gluten free and we also have the advantage of cookbooks containing gluten free receipes. Yes, generally a lot of these products cost a bit more money (I know that may be a factor for many people) but in reality, its your health or the health of a loved one, is there a price you can put on your families health?

  • Anthony

    My wife have the problem and it attacts her immune system also memory. She eats rice crackers, however there are times when she eats bread and suffers after wth body pain and idgestive issues. This problem only became prevelent around her 30s

  • Evelyn

    Well ~ live and learn without the gluton in what we like to eat (Gobble Gobble:>).

  • Ruth

    I don’t know if I am sensitive or not but I do know that when I basically eliminated wheat and sugar, I have slowly lost weight and feel healthier even though I do not subscribe to the low-fat low-carb dietary way of eating. I eat basically eggs, meats, fish, cheese, nuts and seeds, more vegetables than before and fruits. I prefer my food as close to nature as possible. The fats I eat are butter, olive oil, and coconut oil as well as what may be in the other foods I eat such as meat and nuts. I feel much better now and I certainly don’t feel deprived. I don’t know about “gluten-free” foods but I suspect they are processed and not necessarily found in nature. I also try to exercise about 3 times a week using the treadmill and free weights. Incidentally I am 73 years old and hope to continue this program for as long as I can.

  • A

    Wait, are you generalizing from people with celiac disease to the general public?

    • Carl L.

      It is estimated (conservatively) that 3 million Americans have celiac and most don’t know they have this gluten problem. Having unrecognized celiac increases your risk of death this year by 400%
      ( So, yes, this is an extremely important public health problem. Millions of people are affected.

  • Devinder raheja

    We in India eat wheat as a major part of our diet, and have vegitables alogwith cooked wheat.and consider it as a healthy diet. How co we eliminate wheat fronour diet

  • Lois

    I suggest the book “Eat Right for (4) Your Type”, by Dr. Peter D’Adamo/Catherine Whitney. The book is about blood types, and the foods that our body can and cannot eat.

    The book touches on all foods. I highly recommend the book.

    ADD, ADHD is all about the corruption of our digestive system, foods our body can’t assimilate. In today’s world, to top it off, the foods are refined, nutrients our bodies need are extracted. Our bodies become sick, clogged. Deadly disease, I feel is self destruction.

  • Linda J Shaw

    I went through the whole rigmarole of testing for wheat and fructose intolerance and found out that I am not officialy celiac, however, I was told by another guru alternative medical practicioner that I have Disbiosis, a scary word that means that my gut is in a serious mess.
    I tried to follow his rules and regulations about all of the foods to delete from my diet and it was pretty much everything, he then advised me to take copius amounts of supplements to get me back on track, the stress of taking these and the cost to boot and the weakness from not having much of a choice of foods to eat drove me insane…..I do feel better when I dont eat bread or bisuits and flour base products I have to admit but I crave these things sometimes. I get extremely bloated and suffer with excruciating pains from this and bouts of consipation and diarrhea. I am going to keep trying though, to fix myself by not eating processed foods to much, I am 52 years old and have not felt well for the last 15 years.
    Thanks for the helpful information. :)

  • BOB

    I am sufering from cealic disease,please guide me to cure it

  • Meshelle

    Can the brain be repaired after gluten problem is diagnosed and addressed? My short term memory is shot. Have no recall. Thank you. Meshelle