Is your daily bread harming your brain?
Gluten’s potential for affecting digestive health is well documented, particularly when it comes to the lining of the gut – we have all heard of how it can cause celiac disease, create non-gluten-celiac sensitivity, puncture holes in the lining of the gut – and going “gluten-free” has become very fashionable. But today I want to talk about the effect of gluten on the brain, as this is an area about which there is considerably less information available.
However, first I just wanted to share with you a description of how gluten can affect the digestive system which I heard last week during a webinar I attended on this subject. It really caught my attention because it made the whole issue so clear and easy to understand. The lecturer explained it this way: “Think of the lining of the gut as a cheesecloth with a nice, tight weave. Gluten scratches away at this cheesecloth, slowly and inexorably weakening it, loosening the weave and eventually causing small tears in it, allowing leakage from the gut into the bloodstream”. Given the chance, the tears can heal, close up and knit back together, and the weave can tighten again. But keep eating gluten and the tears just grow bigger – toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, pizza for supper, unending scratching away at the gut lining, constant digestive inflammation.
Anyway, that was just a little detour, so let’s get back to the brain and how eating gluten can affect it! I was horrified to discover during some recent research how many mental problems and states have been linked to gluten consumption, among them anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, cognitive decline, ADHD and nerve damage. It has even been connected to autism and bipolar disorder. This is perhaps not surprising in view of the fact that the gut and the brain are in constant communication – known as the “gut/brain axis”. But why and how does this come about?
One crucial reason is that gluten causes inflammation – in the gut as well as the brain – and a brain on fire results in changes in brain function and therefore behaviour. Another equally critical one is that gluten contains glutamate, a neurotransmitter capable of revving up brain cells, activating them, exciting them and ultimately damaging them. In fact, you may remember the scandal some years ago in the food manufacturing industry about monosodium glutamate or MSG and its use in food, particularly Chinese takeaways, as a flavour enhancer. While glutamate is an abundant – and natural - amino acid in the brain, and plays a central metabolic role there, it is also considered an “excitotoxin”, a substance which can overexcite and damage, even kill, cells in the brain - it can literally excite them to death. So it is very important to have the right concentrations of glutamate in the brain – and therefore to limit gluten in the diet.
Do I tell my Dynamic Ageing clients not to eat wheat-based bread or pasta? No, but do it just occasionally, as a very special treat.