According to the World Health Organization, cases of dementia are set to soar in the coming decades. While over 35 million people suffer with dementia in 2010, the estimate is that numbers will double by 2030. The United Nations health agency said this week that in 2050 it expects dementia cases to triple to well over 100 million people. If you’ve ever lived with a relative with dementia or even had a close friend who had a family member suffering, you know the toll that it takes on the patient as well as their family. I know that in our practice here at HealthNOW, I frequently meet patients who have dementia in their family, and for them, preventing it in themselves is a major goal. The question we will address here is: Does gluten intolerance play a role in dementia?
Alzheimer’s is considered to be a major cause of dementia. Alzheimer’s is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body’s own immune system is responsible for attacking the patient’s brain and creating the symptoms of dementia. Celiac disease is not only an autoimmune disease in itself, but it is known to cause other autoimmune diseases as a result of the damage creating in the small intestine – called a leaky gut. Research shows that the longer a person has undiagnosed celiac disease, the more likely they are to develop an autoimmune disease, making early diagnosis extremely important.1
Here at HealthNOW we find both patients with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity at risk for autoimmune disease. We also often see a nice resolution or improvement of those autoimmune symptoms when gluten is removed from the diet.
Our ability to diagnose celiac disease is quite poor in the U.S. We only diagnose 3 to 5% of those suffering. Recent research shows us that celiac incidence factually increases with the age of the patient. So while 1% of the population having celiac disease makes it the most common life-long disorder in the US and Europe, that number quadruples to 4% with age. Therefore there are likely many millions of adults in this country living with undiagnosed celiac disease (not to mention gluten sensitivity) who are unknowingly suffering from brain damage as a result.
Does gluten affect the brain? There is ample research to show that the body’s immune system reacts to gluten and that can result in a host of brain related issues including: brain atrophy, lesions in the brain (called white matter lesions), decreased blood flow to the brain (call hypoperfusion) and inflamed blood vessels in the brain (called vasculitis). It is understandable how such damage could create symptoms of dementia.
British clinician, Dr. Maios Hadjivassiliou, a world renown authority on gluten, reported in The Lancet that gluten sensitivity can be at times exclusively a neurological disease.2 In other words, people suffering from gluten intolerance can have absolutely no digestive symptoms but will have issues with brain dysfunction.
How many of those with undiagnosed gluten intolerance develop dementia? We don’t know exactly. One study found two patients with Alzheimer’s disease who were later diagnosed with celiac disease. Once a gluten-free diet was begun, their cognitive symptoms (mental clarity) improved.3
Unfortunately, this damage to the brain is not relegated to the adult population. Researchers in Israel found neurological problems in 51% of children with gluten sensitivity. They also state there is a link between gluten sensitivity and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
I’m often asked how something you eat can affect your brain. Even with patients who notice a marked improvement in their own mood, memory and depression once embarking on a gluten-free diet, they often cannot believe that it is really gluten creating these effects and have a hard time explaining how it happens to others.
The best way to understand a rather complex issue involving the body’s immune system, gluten and inflammatory chemicals, is to look at a simple analogy.
Imagine the rooms of your house to be parts of your body. The kitchen is your digestive tract, the attic is your brain, the living room is your liver, etc. Let’s say you ate gluten and your body reacted poorly to it because you were gluten intolerant. When gluten arrives in your digestive tract, the irritation it creates is analogous to having a fire start. Continuing with our analogy, the ingested gluten has created a fire in your kitchen.
But do fires ‘stay put’ or do they tend to spread?
Now let’s imagine that the kitchen fire is so severe that the sheer force of it sends sparks and flames to other areas of the house. Before you know it, your living room, attic, bathroom, and bedrooms are all in flames. Remember that each of these rooms represents a different part of your body.
Much in the way a fire can spread throughout a house, so too can gluten affect other parts of your body through the rapid spread of chemicals. These chemicals are call cytokines (site-o-kines) and they can create serious damage wherever they go, but most especially the brain responds negatively to them. In fact, elevated levels of cytokines are found in patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism and multiple sclerosis. Cytokines truly are inflammatory, so likening them to flames isn’t far off.
A 2006 study out of Mayo Clinic found a strong correlation between celiac disease and mental decline. Published in Archives of Neurology the authors stated that despite finding mental impairment associated with celiac disease, no doctor had made that association with these patients. They urged that doctors reevaluate the role that gluten can play in a treatable dementia and look for it in their patients.4
In the study of 13 patients, aged 45 – 79, with progressive mental decline over two years and biopsy-proven celiac disease that was not under control based on digestive symptoms, 3 patients improved or stabilized after initiating a gluten-free diet. Realize this is over 23% of the patients showing stabilization or improvement – no small percentage.
In support of gluten causing their symptoms, 10 had ataxia (unstable gait) that is an extremely common condition as a result of gluten intolerance. Four patients had nutrient deficiencies (vitamin E and B12), but supplementing the diet did nothing to improve their symptoms. [Note: with the age of these patients and undiagnosed celiac disease, the likelihood that they were unable to absorb the nutrition due to the damage of their intestines, is high.]
Here’s the truth of the matter: Dementia is on the rise dramatically. Much of the cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s and decreased mental ability has a strong relationship to gluten intolerance. Diagnosing gluten intolerance and changing your diet can positively affect the brain.
So the takeaway message is: Get tested for gluten intolerance and, most especially if dementia or any autoimmune disease runs in your family, get tested soon!
I hope this was helpful. Please share this information with your friends and family. I am committed to increasing awareness of gluten intolerance and improving the health of all Americans (actually let’s include the whole planet!). Sharing this information will help accomplish that goal.
Our destination clinic treats patients from across the country and internationally. You don’t need to live locally to get help. If you would like any assistance improving your health, I’d like to invite you to receive a free health analysis. Call 408-733-0400 – we’re here to help!
To your good health,
Dr Vikki Petersen, DC, CCN
Founder of HealthNOW Medical Center
Co-author of “The Gluten Effect”
Author of the eBook: “Gluten Intolerance – What you don’t know may be killing you!”
·Società Italiana di Gastroenterologia ed Epatologia Pediatrica (Italian Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology and Hepatology)
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