This article appeared in the Autumn 2006 edition of Celiac.coms Scott-Free Newsletter.
The gluten puzzle
I have come to this conclusion after studying the effects of gluten on my patients for over a decade. I am a pediatric gastroenterologist and allergist. I run a busy clinic for children and their parents. I have been increasingly concerned by the large numbers of my patients who are affected by gluten. I was perplexed by their wide-ranging symptoms. The puzzle was to explain how gluten could cause so much ill health to so many people in so many different ways, including celiac disease.
Faulty brain control
Eureka! The solution came when deep in discussion with my friend and colleague, Ron Harper, Professor of Neurobiology, UCLA. We were both struggling with the concept of multiple symptoms that needed to be explained. The answer appeared absurdly simple: disturbed "brain control". It suddenly seemed obvious—gluten could disturb the neural pathways of the body. Gluten was gradually damaging the brain and the nerves of susceptible people. It was the brain that was the common pathway for the manifestations of all of the gluten symptoms. So I set out to research what the world medical literature had to say.
Is gluten a neurotoxin?
I felt excited. I reviewed my patients in this new light—I began looking for a brain-grain connection. I began to see gluten as a neurotoxin—this could provide a universal model of gluten-sensitivity. This toxicity might act through inflammatory mechanisms or cross-reactivity with neurons. I began accumulating the evidence for my proposal that gluten-sensitivity is a brain and nerve disease.
"Full Of It!"
The concept of "Full of it" developed from the stories from my patients. I wrote my hypothesis down in a book now called Full of it! It refers to our diets being full of gluten; to the world being full of gluten-sensitive people; to the medical practitioners who are so skeptical of adverse reactions to gluten; to the enthusiasm of people who are feeling vibrant again on a gluten-free diet; and to those who are brimming with hope that the problem of gluten has now been recognized.
Food allergy skeptics
As a junior doctor I decided to formally research the food allergy phenomenon. I was awarded a research post and carried out the first comprehensive food allergy studies in New Zealand. I triumphantly demonstrated that food allergy was both a real entity and that it was common. But, to my disappointment, my colleagues were reluctant to believe me or my data. They professed a "disbelief" in food allergy. This surprised me as I had the research data.
My next step was to conduct four more years of investigation of food allergy in Australia (at the Royal Childrens Hospital, Melbourne). This was a bigger and more elaborate study. My Doctoral Thesis (1982) based on this work is called: Food hypersensitivity in children: diagnostic approaches to milk and egg hypersensitivity. Since then I have continued my investigations into food allergy—but still today (25 years later) medical skepticism abounds. This "disbelief" is held despite the vast body of research describing food allergy. There seems to be an underlying unwillingness for doctors to consider food allergy as a possibility. Unfortunately, this also applies to gluten reactions.
The shocking truth
The shocking truth about gluten is that gluten foods are causing tremendous damage—but currently this is going mostly unrecognized. Unfortunately, gluten grains have become our staple diet. The quantity of gluten in our food supply has been steadily increasing. Yet worse, official Health Policies endorse gluten grains as the foundation of our food pyramid.
Medics turn a blind eye
Gluten is sapping the energy and wellbeing of countless millions. To date, the medical profession has turned a blind eye to glutens wider problems whilst focusing all of their attention on the narrow problem of celiac disease.
A typical story
I received emails like this every day:
Can gluten damage your brain?
I believe that gluten was actually causing these two children to be sick. That is the explanation for their "naughty" behavior, their moods and their headaches.
I postulate that gluten can damage your brain. I have come to this conclusion by the abundant circumstantial evidence from my observations of my patients who are gluten-sensitive. I have pondered the next questions: "Why do they have such an array of symptoms from gluten?" "Why do they recover so quickly when gluten is removed?" And "Why do they deteriorate so rapidly when only tiny amounts of gluten are eaten?" The concept of a brain/nerve disease can explain everything.
The brain/nerve hypothesis
"The symptoms from gluten occur through its action on the nervous system".
I propose that gluten-sensitivity is a brain condition. Each and every organ in your body has some form of brain/nerve control. I propose that gluten can injure the delicate nervous networks that control your guts functions. A malfunction will subsequently lead to all of the gut symptoms that have so well been described. In addition, gluten can also directly affect brain function, which leads to the primary neurological symptoms that are so commonly seen with gluten-sensitivity.
What is new?
There are a number of new ideas that I put forward. These are based on circumstantial evidence. They produce a unifying theory of the symptoms that are attributed to gluten toxicity.
- A brain disease
I consider that gluten-sensitivity is mostly a neurological problem. A major contribution to this debate is the realization that the brain has a central role in the expression of the symptoms that have, until now, been attributed to the local toxicity of gluten in the gut.
- A nerve disease
I propose that gluten-sensitivity is a nerve disease. There is a gigantic network of nerves that controls every function that your gut is programmed to do. There are as many nerve cells in your gut as there are in your head! (about 25 billion nerve cells). I call it your tummy brain (or gut brain). Your tummy brain can be directly damaged by gluten reactions. This is the cause of so many sore tummies and bowel troubles.
- A wide spectrum of neurological manifestations
For decades, there have been reports of unexplained brain and nerve symptoms which are associated with celiac disease. Although these associations have been described, there has been no universal mechanism proposed. However, if gluten is seen as a neurotoxin, then the explanation has been found.
- A very common disease
Reactions to gluten have recently been documented to be extremely common. About one-in-ten people (as ascertained by blood donor studies) have high levels of gluten antibodies in their blood. My clinical studies have arrived at this same high number of gluten-sensitive people. Others have data to show that it is even more prevalent.
Am I full if it?
You might ask, "Is he full of it?" Yes, I am full of excitement and hope for the future. So many people can now be helped, if only this information can be widely distributed. I am full of ideas and full of enthusiasm. I hope that you are full of hope for your healthy and vibrant future.
Are you affected?
The shocking truth is that gluten can damage your brain and that so many people are being encouraged to eat gluten-foods that might be steadily eroding their health and energy. If you have any lingering doubt about your own health, then I suggest that you check out the possibility of gluten-sensitivity.
If you have any comments or questions we would love to hear from you.
Dr Rodney Ford is a Pediatric Gastroenterologist, Allergist and Nutrition Consultant. He has been Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Christchurch School of Medicine, University of Otago. He runs a busy Childrens Gastroenterology and Allergy Clinic in Christchurch, New Zealand. He has written over a hundred scientific papers including book chapters and books. www.doctorgluten.com
This includes a series of five books on gluten: why it can make you ill and how to go gluten-free.
- Are You Gluten-Sensitive? Your Questions Answered
- Going Gluten-Free: How to Get Started
- The Gluten-Free lunch book
- The book for the Sick, Tired and Grumpy (Gluten-Free kids)
- Full of it! The shocking truth about gluten (The brain-grain connection - ISBN 978-0-473-10407-8)