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Also known as sprue, gluten enteropathy, and gluten sensitivity, celiac disease causes a number of well-known symptoms of intestinal inflammation in a small number of people. Many more people, however, suffer symptoms of of celiac disease in the brain.

Jane (her last name withheld for privacy) had had migraine headaches for as long as she could remember. Even as a small child in elementary school, she would often have a horrible headache an hour or two after lunchtime. She had a migraine headache after every birthday party, or, more precisely, after every birthday cake, and she struggled throughout college and early adulthood to participate in daily life and hold down a job.

When Jane turned 30, however, her problem got even worse. Migraine medications had never worked, and Jane had gone from specialist to specialist to try to find relief. This time, Jane's neurologist informed her that a scan of her brain revealed ominous white spots that indicated a form of cancer known as lymphoma.

But further testing revealed that Jane did not have lymphoma. She happened to mention to the neurologist that her migraines were worse when she had also had diarrhea, and the doctor decided to test for celiac disease. Sure enough, Jane tested positive for antibodies to gliadin, the protein in wheat and related grains that gives dough its “stretch,” and a biopsy of her intestine revealed damage from the disease. Jane's celiac disease did not cause severe symptoms in her digestive tract that would lead a doctor to test for the problem, but it did cause inflammation in the brain.

Happily for Jane, a grain-free diet brought her nearly total relief from migraine—and recurrent diarrhea. The white patches in her brain did not spread, and after about two years they were no longer detectable.

Gluten Sensitivity Can Cause a Variety of Brain-Related Symptoms

Sensitivity to the gluten in wheat, oats, rye, and related grains (but not corn and rice) has not only been found to be associated with migraine headaches.

People who had recurrent seizures that did not respond to medication, depression, hallucinations, psychotic breaks, and even autism have improved when put on gluten-free diets.

Brain-related diseases that are driven by gluten sensitivity tend to present themselves in a consistent pattern:

  • The symptoms of the disorder can disappear and reappear, usually suddenly, over a long period of time.
  • The disorder doesn't respond to conventional medications.
  • There is usually some other sign of gluten-sensitivity disease, such as repeated bouts with constipation or diarrhea, or both, skin rashes, and evidence of calcium or vitamin D deficiency (due to the inability of the digestive tract to absorb these nutrients).
  • Improvement occurs when the patient starts a gluten-free diet.

Healing the Gut-Brain Axis

Gluten-related brain diseases are a vivid example of the importance of the gut-brain axis.

Scientists have known since the 1920's that certain psychiatric conditions, especially depression, respond to hormonal signals from bacteria (especially Lactobacillus bacteria) in the colon.

Friendly bacteria in the colon also modulate the activity of the immune system. In the case of celiac disease and the brain, treating an autoimmune disease of the colon seems sometimes to heal brain disease. But is a gluten-free diet always the answer?

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