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  • Dr. Tom O'Bryan

    Pregnancy: Gluten Sensitivity and Your Child’s Brain Development

    Dr. Tom O'Bryan
    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Awareness is growing as rates of celiac disease, an intestinal autoimmune disease caused by gluten, have quadrupled in the last 50 years. 

    Gluten sensitivity during pregnancy can profoundly impact fetal brain development. Image: CC BY 2.0--be creator
    Caption: Gluten sensitivity during pregnancy can profoundly impact fetal brain development. Image: CC BY 2.0--be creator

    Celiac.com 02/07/2020 - Gluten sensitivity during pregnancy can profoundly impact fetal brain development. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. 

    Many people who have a gluten intolerance may also have other food sensitivities to common antigens like corn, soy, dairy, and sugar. Many times, without a histamine response like hives, people can be blissfully unaware of their food sensitivity. 

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    Studies have shown gluten sensitivity destroys brain and nervous tissue more than any other tissue in the body, and is linked to a number of other neurological disorders. (Read my blog Gluten Intolerance Testing for more information about this.)

    Eating Gluten During Pregnancy May Potentially Put Your Child At Risk

    Beginning before birth, the left and right hemispheres of the brain develop in stages according to a very sophisticated schedule. Each hemisphere depends on the other to meet its developmental goals within a precise window of time. While in-utero and in early childhood, viruses, infection, and inflammation (such as that from a gluten sensitivity), can throw a wrench in this intricate timing and hinder proper brain development. This sets the stage for a wide range of neurological disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, Tourette's syndrome, depression, anxiety, and other childhood brain disorders. 

    Childhood mental disorders now affect one in five children, and the rates are increasing.

    Wheat Can impact Brain Function

    There are at least 13 different ways I know of that a gluten sensitivity can impact the brain. Let's look at a couple of the big ones.

    One mechanism is that there can be elevated antibodies to wheat and the cerebellum and GAD-65. Your cerebellum controls your muscle movements. After years of your body attacking this brain tissue, the brain may shrink.

    People with GAD-65 antibodies indicate a high trigger for anxiety and ADHD.

    Another common mechanism is hypoperfusion, a lack of blood flow going to the brain. 73% of people with a sensitivity to wheat have hypoperfusion. Just like your cells need hydration, your brain needs to be saturated.

    So many people go undiagnosed with a gluten-related disorder for years. Imagine what we are doing to our children (and ourselves) when we eat that bowl of cereal or toast before school or work. We are not able to function optimally. This is why "brain fog" is the most common symptom for people with a sensitivity to wheat.

    In 2006, a study looked at 132 people with symptoms of ADHD who had a wheat sensitivity. When they put them on a gluten-free diet, the researchers reported markedly  significant improvement in all behavioral markers within six months.  

    Gluten sensitivity may also more than double your child's risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.  

    The first study to reveal food sensitivity was linked to a greater risk for psychosis, autism and other brain disorders in the child. Researchers looked at blood samples of nearly 800 individuals born in Sweden between 1975 and 1985. 

    What did they find? People with schizophrenia had high levels of gluten antibodies in their blood at birth - meaning a gluten sensitivity was passed from mother to child.

    You Might Have an Undiagnosed Gluten Sensitivity

    Awareness is growing as rates of celiac disease, an intestinal autoimmune disease caused by gluten, have quadrupled in the last 50 years. 

    The numbers could be much higher. In fact, it's estimated that 95 percent of those with celiac disease go undiagnosed. 
    Researchers also estimate the numbers of people with gluten sensitivity — a non-celiac inflammatory reaction to gluten — range from 10 to 30 percent of the population. 

    During Pregnancy, Mom's Gluten Sensitivity May Affect Her Baby's Brain 

    If you look at the current explosion in inflammatory disorders today, the rise of these brain-based disorders is less of a mystery. Immune-activated mothers are giving birth to immune-activated babies. 

    If you can, don't wait until pregnancy to look into food sensitivities. Every woman needs to consider a screen for gluten sensitivity. Look for anti-gliadin antibodies and, if that test comes back positive, go on a gluten-free diet. 

    We don't know at which point during pregnancy a mother's gluten sensitivity impacts the fetal brain, but we do know the baby's brain and nervous system begin developing in the first trimester. Although the association between a mother's gluten sensitivity and the baby's increased risk of psychosis as an adult is not yet fully understood, it makes sense to err on the side of caution. 

    "During My Pregnancy, I Didn't Get Nauseous. I Must Not Have Gluten Sensitivity, Right?" 

    Not Necessarily. A lack of gut symptoms doesn't mean you're in the clear. Everyone reacts differently to gluten sensitivity. One person can have chronic skin rashes, another may have joint pain, and a third brain fog. In fact, research suggests the majority of people with gluten sensitivity have no gastrointestinal symptoms whatsoever. 
    For every person with gut symptoms caused by gluten, there will be eight who have none, despite there being a gluten sensitivity present. 

    An undiagnosed gluten sensitivity during pregnancy is in no way a guarantee that your child will develop schizophrenia or other brain disorders either. However, when an expectant mother produces autoimmune antibodies to brain tissue, 86% of their children are on the autism spectrum. 

    If mom has an autoimmune mechanism going on inside her body, it can affect the baby. One of the most common food sensitivities associated with neurologic problems is wheat. Only a fraction of people who have a problem with wheat have celiac. Many more have gluten sensitivity. 

    Many women —and men—may be better off on a gluten-free diet even though they do not have celiac disease. 
    How do you reduce antibodies?

    First, screen for antibodies against the brain. Two great tools for screening are the Cyrex Array #5 and the Neural Zoomer. 

    If you are producing antibodies, you need to eliminate the trigger(s). The goal is to stop the autoimmune cascade, particularly during pregnancy when the fetus is developing its entire body and establishing its own immune system that will set him or her up for life.

    Bacterial Colonies Change in the Vaginal Tract During Pregnancy

    In the last trimester of pregnancy, the bacterial colonies in the vaginal tract change completely to the point that there's a very high count of prevotella [bacteria]. 

    Most of the time, there are practically no prevotella that are measurable in the vaginal tract at all. The change in the last trimester occurs because the prevotella is the substance that coats the baby as it comes down the birth canal. Prevotella migrates through the baby's nasal cavity and its mouth and goes down to turn on the genes in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These genes say, "Okay, this is the mammal that is going to start feeding you. Here are the codes for the protein that's about to come to you for food." 

    The baby's digestive tract then starts turning on the digestive enzyme production capability for the specific proteins that are encoded in the prevotella bacteria. 

    My Personal Story

    When we were first married, my ex-wife and I, despite all efforts, could not get pregnant. I was an intern at the time, and I called the seven most famous doctors I'd ever heard of, holistic doctors, and asked, "What can we do?" 

    Because I was an intern, they asked, "Do you know this?" "Do you know that?" I'd say, "No." 

    And they would respond: "Learn." 

    So I put a program together, and we were pregnant in six weeks.  A lot of people know that this began my study of gluten and the many effects it has on the body.

    Since then, I've helped hundreds of couples with infertility, recurrent miscarriages, and hormonal imbalances. There's not much in medicine that's all or every, but this is an every. 

    What we learned early was that every person with hormone-related symptoms, whether it was infertility, miscarriages, estrogen dominance, testosterone deficiency, all of them, when tested properly, had a sensitivity to foods that they were eating — foods that they did not know were making them sick. 

    When you eat a food that you're sensitive to, it triggers inflammation in the body. The immune system responds to try to protect you from something it considers an invader, and it creates an inflammatory reaction.

    I have said this so many times over the years: "Ms. Patient. If you pull at a chain, the chain always breaks at the weakest link. So, the first thing to do is to learn what's pulling on the chain." 

    We found out something amazing...

    Food Sensitivities Were a Component Every Time

    Often there were more, but it was an important component. I found that the most frequent food sensitivity was wheat. So I started reading the literature on wheat way back in 1980. Our daughter was also born in 1980, and I started talking about it shortly thereafter because the studies were blowing me away.

    By 2004, I was lecturing professionally onstage about wheat sensitivities with or without celiac disease. That progressed and progressed until 2008, when a nutritional company called Metagenics sponsored me to go around the world. I went to 26 different cities and gave full eight-hour presentations on wheat sensitivity. The presentation dropped everybody's jaw. No one had ever seen these studies about different types of spondyloarthropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, autism, or Alzheimer's and how it would benefit some of those people just by getting off of wheat. They started to get better, sometimes dramatically, but often to some degree.

    In 2009, I did the same 26 cities for a full eight-hour presentation on the development of autoimmunity. 

    What triggers the development of autoimmunity? And what do you do to address autoimmunity? 

    It was infertility, successfully addressed by looking at food sensitivities and a couple of other things that led me into learning about wheat sensitivity; gluten sensitivity; and the trigger of intestinal permeability.

    For example, in the United States, 78% of the prebiotic diet is wheat. If you take wheat out of your diet, which is a very important thing, what you're also taking out is the major source of your prebiotics. And prebiotics feed probiotics, which are the good bacteria in your gut.

    If you take wheat out of your diet without the right education or mentorship, you lose the main prebiotic source, and, as a result, probiotics in your gut (the good bacteria that need that food) start starving. Some probiotics begin to die off, and the bad guys in your gut that have been kept in check to some degree by those probiotics now become opportunistic and rear their ugly heads. 

    This is why it is so helpful to find a certified gluten-free practitioner or nutritionist when you are on a gluten-free diet: This is especially important before and during pregnancy. You want to prepare your body to be free of antibodies prior to conception, and you want the proper nutrition to support both you and a developing baby.


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  • About Me

    Dr. Tom O'Bryan, founder of theDr.com, is an internationally recognized speaker, best-selling author, and autoimmune expert. Bringing insight with compassion and common sense to the complexities of immune health, he is the modern day Sherlock Holmes for chronic diseases.

    Having trained tens of thousands of practitioners around the world, his work around wheat-related conditions, identifying triggers for autoimmunity, and eliminating toxins for health have taken center stage.

    His empowering message of healing echoes throughout his best selling book The Autoimmune Fix, his latest best seller How to Fix Your Brain, his 9-part Betrayal docuseries, and his podcast event The Gluten Summit - A Grain of Truth.

    He demonstrates that changing the microbiome (regenerating a healthy environment in the body), and changing the microbiome within our soil (regenerative agriculture) creates incremental and powerful changes to our health. In fact, these changes are vital to the health of both the patient and the planet.

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