By David Gutierrez
A gluten-free diet may improve cognitive function in people with celiac disease, in addition to its previously proven benefits for intestinal health, according to a recent study conducted by Australian researchers and published in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics.
“The study outcomes highlight the importance for individuals with celiac disease of maintaining a gluten-free diet not just for physical well-being but also for mental well-being,” senior author Dr. Greg Yelland said.
And in a related finding, scientists have discovered that a gluten-free diet may ease depressive symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Gluten produces “brain fog”
In celiac disease, the small intestine responds to the presence of gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) by triggering an immune response. Over the long term, exposure to gluten can lead to chronic inflammation and nutrient malabsorption. Symptoms of celiac disease include stomach pain, weight loss, bloating and diarrhea. Over time, malabsorption can lead to nutrient deficiencies that cause damage or even failure in several bodily systems and organs.
Although celiac disease is currently incurable, a strict gluten-free diet can prevent flareups and, over time, even allow healing of intestinal damage.
In addition to its digestive symptoms, celiac disease is also known to produce a phenomenon known as “brain fog”: a variety of cognitive symptoms such as temporary memory loss, lack of creativity and attention problems.
“In our experience, patients often report that brain fog dissipates after treatment on a gluten-free diet or returns after inadvertent gluten exposure,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers assigned 11 adults with celiac disease who had not previously been following a strict gluten-free diet to forego all gluten-containing foods for a full year. At the end of that time, participants showed significantly improved intestinal health.
By 12 weeks into the study, the participants were already scoring significantly higher on various tests of cognitive function than they had at the beginning of the trial.
The findings reinforce the biological reality of brain fog and are consistent with prior findings that have shown a correlation between age-related cognitive decline and late diagnosis of celiac disease. They suggest that untreated celiac disease is more likely to produce severe cognitive symptoms.
Researchers are unsure exactly what it is about celiac disease that produces cognitive dysfunction. Possibilities include low levels of key nutrients such as iron or folate, disruption to gut flora and chronic inflammation.
Gluten produces depression
Another recent study conducted by some of the same researchers found that a gluten-free diet may also provide cognitive benefits to some people who do not have celiac disease.
The researchers instructed 22 adults who suffered from IBS but not from celiac disease to consume a standardized gluten-free diet supplemented with either 16 g/day of whey, 16 g/day of gluten or a placebo for three days. After a washout period of at least three days, participants were switched to another diet, until all participants had completed all three diets. The researchers assessed each participants’ mental state, gastrointestinal symptoms and secretion of the stress hormone cortisol.
The researchers found that, while neither gluten nor whey had any effect on gastrointestinal symptoms or cortisol secretion, participants on the gluten diet scored significantly higher on a depression scale than participants in the other two groups.
Studies have suggested that many people who self-diagnose as being gluten-sensitive but who do not suffer from celiac disease don’t actually experience any improvement in their gastrointestinal symptoms from cutting gluten out of their diets. Nevertheless, such people widely report feeling better when they do not consume gluten. The researchers suggested that this sense of improved well-being may actually stem from cognitive rather than digestive benefits.
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