Does Gluten Affect the Brain?

There’s certainly been a lot of talk about gluten. That’s because many experts believe that more than 50 percent of Americans are gluten sensitive to some degree. For these people, gluten – the protein found naturally in wheat, barley and rye – can cause a host of health issues ranging from mild to extreme.

Our overconsumption of highly-processed grains has increased the incidence of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, says Arthur Agatston, M.D., medical director of wellness and prevention at Baptist Health and author of The South Beach Diet Gluten Solution. Gluten sensitivity has been known to cause symptoms such as diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, depression, joint pain, skin problems and weight issues. It’s also been linked to arthritis, thyroiditis, diabetes and all kinds of autoimmune problems.

This may be startling news to people who thought that gluten issues only were gastrointestinal. In fact, some researchers suggest that gluten sensitivity is involved in most chronic disease, including those affecting your brain, because of how gluten affects your immune system.

Gluten penetrates not only your gut, but also your brain, allowing it and other proteins into your bloodstream. Research indicates this sensitizes your immune system and promotes inflammation and autoimmunity. And inflammation, say neurologists, is the cornerstone of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

And so comes this new warning from neurologists about gluten: To protect your brain health and prevent dementia, avoid sugar and carbohydrates – and gluten.

Research has shown that the chronically higher blood sugar levels that come with a high-carb diet cause focus problems, or “brain fog,” and put people at a higher risk for dementia. Similarly, Dr. Agatston’s patients reported a lifting of that same feeling of “brain fog” when they eliminated or reduced their gluten intake.  A study that appeared in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2012 revealed that individuals who consumed higher amounts of carbs in their diets had an 89 percent increased risk of dementia.

Scientists and doctors, including Dr. Agatston, have told us for years that a diet that’s lower in processed carbohydrates and higher in lean proteins and good fats is the best way to keep blood sugar low. Those processed carbohydrates, Dr. Agatston says, often contain gluten. With this in mind, he says that “going off gluten is worth a try for everybody.”

“There is absolutely no downside to reducing or eliminating gluten,” he said. “It’s completely healthy. Even people who don’t think they are sensitive to gluten may find they feel better and perform better when they don’t consume it. A great success story is Novak Djokovic, who recently won the Sony Open Tennis crown here in Miami. His rise to become the No. 1 tennis player in the world began soon after he gave up gluten.”

Even before writing The South Beach Diet Gluten Solution, Dr. Agatston saw first-hand the benefits of going gluten-free when working on his book, The South Beach Diet.

“The first phase of The South Beach Diet is completely grain-free to prevent swings in blood sugar and to help stop cravings. It was therefore also unintentionally gluten-free,” said Dr. Agatston. “People on the diet’s first phase felt so well that they didn’t want to move on to the second phase. We saw things like juvenile arthritis, psoriasis and migraines disappear. I realized it was the ‘unintentionally gluten-free part’ that was making people feel so good.”

The take-home message is this: The brain is not destined for failure simply as a matter of course as you age. There are steps you can take toward preventing dementia. One of the best dietary strategies to protect your brain health is to reduce non-vegetable carbohydrate consumption, including sugars, grains and therefore gluten, while increasing lean proteins and healthy fat consumption, says Dr. Agatston.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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