When gluten causes nerve damage

Many doctors think that reactions to gluten occur mainly in the digestive tract. But if you’re sensitive to gluten, your nerves are at risk.

In the past, celiac – an autoimmune reaction to the gluten contained in wheat, barley and rye – was considered to be strictly a digestive problem. Stomach aches, diarrhea, bloating and malnutrition represented its chief signs, according to conventional wisdom.

But it has now been well-established that if you suffer from a sensitivity to gluten, you can fall victim to neuropathy – nerve damage that can produce pain, tingling, weakness and numbness.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, analyzed the risk of developing neuropathy among people with celiac in a study involving more than 160,000 people. The data used in the study involved diagnoses of celiac that spanned more than 40 years.

The analysis showed if you have celiac, you have a 250 percent greater risk of neuropathy.

The researchers conclude: “We found an increased risk of neuropathy in patients with CD [celiac disease] that persists after CD diagnosis. Although absolute risks for neuropathy are low, CD is a potentially treatable condition with a young age of onset. Our findings suggest that screening could be beneficial in patients with neuropathy,”

Although mainstream medical practitioners are just starting to catch up to the nerve problems connected with celiac, many practitioners and celiac sufferers have known about these issues for a long time. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, up to 10 percent of people with celiac encounter issues with depression, epilepsy, migraine headaches and ataxia (movement troubles) as well as neuropathy.

Before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I often wondered why I experienced strange movement problems and a troubling awkwardness that came and went at unexpected times. Since I went on a gluten-free, paleo diet, many of these clumsy moments have departed for good. Others return occasionally.

As a matter of fact, if I am unsure whether I have accidentally eaten foods with gluten in them, I examine how well I can climb stairs. If I can ascend without having to pay much conscious attention to where my feet are going, I know I’m probably safe. But if I experience moments of doubt and difficulty, I suspect that I have eaten something that’s been cross-contaminated with gluten.

Carl Lowe

By 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.