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Brain Fog: What, Who, Where?

Why did I walk into this room?  What was I just saying?  Where are my keys?   Are you talking to me?

Do you suffer from “brain fog”, a mild cognitive dysfunction where mental abilities such as thinking, attention, memory, judgment, understanding and/or learning are impaired? 

Although, celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are typically thought of as gastrointestinal problems, there is some evidence that they may also be associated with cognitive impairment.  

A recent pilot study, conducted in Australia and published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics in May, 2014, found that after consuming a gluten-free diet for 52 weeks, all 11 subjects with diagnosed celiac disease showed significant improvement in cognitive abilities, a corresponding improvement in mucosal gut healing, and lower blood antibody (tTG) levels.

The researchers suggested a few possible explanations for why subjects felt disoriented or unable to focus after consuming gluten:

  1. Inflammation caused by consuming gluten in patients with CD or sensitivity to gluten may lead to an increase in circulating “cytokines”.  High levels of cytokines have been associated with mood and behavior changes, as well as decreased mental acuity.
  2. Gluten in your diet may reduce the amount of brain tryptophan needed to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter.  Many scientists feel that serotonin is necessary to maintain mood balance.  A deficit of serotonin may contribute to depression.
  3. Gluten may also have an effect on gut bacteria which has been shown in rats to effect mood.

Accidental exposure to gluten (making mistakes, cross-contamination or from hidden sources) has been shown to cause a temporary inability to think clearly or perform certain tasks.  When left untreated, patients with celiac disease who are not following a strict gluten-free diet may cause damage to the cerebellum defined by lesions in the white matter of their brain.  White matter of the brain is composed of nerve fibers and their protective cover, or myelin.  Myelin aids with both insulation of the nerves and flow of impulses.  In advanced cases of untreated CD there may be a decline in grey matter density.  Grey matter of the brain is related to the central nervous system.  Both white and grey matter are interactive.

Research looking at the association of brain health and celiac disease is still in it’s infancy.  Clearly, more research is needed in this area of Gluten Fog.  Does it effect only those with celiac disease or is it related to symptoms of gluten ingestion?

Jan Phillips, M.Ed.

Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, July 2014