Gluten-free is the latest health fad. Bakeries and drug stores now offer everything from gluten-free cookies to lipstick. While you may balk at claims your toast is evil, Naples, Fla.-based neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain (Little Brown and Company, 2013) says there's a good reason we all may need to give gluten-free a try.
While only 1.8 percent of the population suffer from celiac disease (a hypersensitivity of the small intestine in reaction to gluten -- a protein found in wheat, barley and rye), Perlmutter says as many as 30 percent of us may suffer from a gluten sensitivity. In his book, Perlmutter links this gluten sensitivity with cognitive decline and neurological diseases including Alzheimer's, ADHD and Parkinson's citing several studies such as this one published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry that demonstrates gluten sensitivity can manifest in a number of neurological conditions.
If you haven't considered going gluten-free before, here's why you might want to try it:
1. Gluten may cause brain degeneration.
While the majority of individuals suffering from gluten sensitivity experience intestinal discomfort, Perlmutter says an increasing number are experiencing neurological challenges including difficulty staying on task, poor memory function, brain fog and severe headaches that result from inflammation; a common reaction to gluten in those with a sensitivity to the protein. "The brain responds really badly to inflammation," says Perlmutter.
Another reason for the loss of cognitive function is that some of our brain proteins look similar to gliadin, a protein found in gluten-containing foods, says Perlmutter. Anti-gliadin antibodies produced by individuals with gluten sensitivity can't tell the difference between these two proteins and eat up the brain proteins that are required for normal cognitive function. Going gluten-free won't make you smarter, but Perlmutter says it may help protect your cognitive function from weakening.
2. Gluten challenges the immune system.
Perlmutter says gluten stimulates the cells of the intestine to secrete a protein called zonulin, which regulates the absorbency of the intestine. The increased production of zonulin erodes the walls of the intestine, allowing various proteins to leave the gut and enter our blood stream. This poses many challenges to the immune system, weakening our ability to fight off diseases.
3. Carbs don't fuel your brain, fats do.
Since our brains are made up of 70 percent fat, overloading our plates with carbohydrates and sugars mean our brains aren't getting the fuel they require. Perlmutter advocates stocking up on healthy fats for a healthy brain. Rather than starting the day with a gluten-containing bagel and a glass of orange juice (that's loaded with carbohydrates), Perlmutter recommends eating a high-fat breakfast with eggs, nuts, seeds or avocado; foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids that protect the brain.
While it’s unclear whether those without a gluten sensitivity experience the same cognitive decline as those with a gluten sensitivity, Perlmutter says anyone who has experienced poor cognitive function, chronic headaches or inflammatory illnesses including joint or abdominal pain should eliminate gluten from their diet for a couple of months and monitor symptoms for change. Perlmutter says because of the nature of what gluten does to the body, it takes a long time to notice results. "If the gluten has caused the gut to become leaky, it can take time for the gut to heal and for you to notice any differences," he says