Gluten - a common trigger for brain autoimmunity

Gluten is one of the most immune reactive foods - it has been found to trigger neurological dysfunction and neurological autoimmunity more than any other food. Research shows that enteric glial cells in the GI tract trigger the brain's immune cells (astroglial cells) which means gut inflammation and food sensitivities can cause brain inflammation and trigger brain autoimmunity.

You don’t have to have celiac disease for this to be the case - it also occurs in cases of gluten sensitivity (when the immune system produces antibodies to gluten). Although celiac disease can also present solely as neurological symptoms.

Research has found that gastrointestinal inflammation from gluten sensitivity can lead to white matter lesions in the brain which are areas of damage seen on MRIs in neurodegenerative conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Even inflammatory bowel disease has been shown to cause white matter lesions due to the gut-brain relationship (gut-brain axis).

Despite the research establishing a link between gluten and neurological diseases, this mechanism is often overlooked in clinical situations. Neurologists typically don’t look at gastrointestinal mechanisms or food protein sensitivity testing. If tests are carried out, it is usually just for celiac disease and so very often individuals with a negative celiac test continue to consume gluten. On top of this, standard testing for gluten sensitivity falls short because it only tests for alpha-gliadin. However individuals can have an immune reaction to many different compounds in wheat. To comprehensively screen for a gluten sensitivity, you need to test for immune antibodies to all of the compounds which can potentially cause an immune reactivation.

To further muddy the water, cross reactivity or molecular mimicry, is another furtive way that gluten can impact on brain health.This occurs when the immune system mistakes brain tissue for gluten and attacks and destroys the tissue. This happens because both gluten and brain tissue have proteins made up from identical amino acid sequences.

The part of the brain called the cerebellum is extremely sensitive to gluten. When people have antibodies to gluten, those antibodies can also bind to cerebellar tissue, signalling the immune system to attack, destroy, and remove the tissue. This can result in a condition called cerebellar ataxia and can lead to poor balance, increased anxiety, sound and light sensitivity, being easily overwhelmed, and other symptoms.

I know this all sounds scary and insurmountable but it is important to be aware of and to know that you can test for immune reactions to all of the different compounds in wheat as well as cross reactive proteins in other foods to see if they are causing an issue for you. I test for these with patients in my clinic using Cyrex testing - if you are interested in finding out more, get in touch and I would be happy to discuss this further with you.

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