Gluten Free Diet May Help Improve Cognitive Troubles
In addition to gastrointestinal issues, another trigger for my getting tested for gluten intolerance was my difficulty in staying focused. I had started to correlate eating wheat with a very significant drop in productivity during the day. Many said it was probably in my head (no pun intended), but research is finding otherwise. For someone with celiac disease, eating gluten may actually cause a drop in brain function similar to being drunk.
While the most recognized symptoms of gluten intolerance and celiac disease are gastrointestinal in nature (ie bloating, abdominal cramping, diarrhea), there are other effects that extend beyond the digestive system. Some research suggests that symptoms of celiac can include certain psychological issues, including affecting the way a person thinks – otherwise known as cognition.
In lay terms, eating gluten can cause a “brain fog” and eliminating the offending protein can really help with day to day performance.
Irene T Lichtwark, a PhD student at Monash University in Melbourne, and colleagues examined the connection between gluten and cognitive function in 11 newly diagnosed patients with celiac disease – the majority of which were women – aged 22 to 39 years. Tests for information-processing efficacy, memory, visuospatial ability, motor function and attention were performed to obtain a baseline.
After being on a gluten-free diet for 12 weeks and then again at one year, the patients were retested. The patients demonstrated significant improvement in 4 of the cognitive tests, plus improvements were seen in scores of verbal fluency and motor function.
The study confirms that celiac disease is often accompanied by what patients describe as "brain fog." The authors found that the level of cognitive impairment in untreated celiac disease was roughly equivalent to the impairment of someone having a blood alcohol level of 0.05/100mL, the upper limit for drunken driving in several countries, including Australia.
"This study, while small in numbers, does provide objective evidence for the cognitive impairments associated with untreated celiac disease," says co-author Gregory W. Yelland, PhD. "We would like to think that clinicians would use this to inform their patients of the cognitive risks of remaining untreated and of the benefits of adhering to a strict gluten-free diet for not only their physical [health,] but their mental health also."
Dr Yelland hopes to verify the results in a larger trial as well as learn more about the mechanism by which celiac disease affects cognitive processing.
Lichtwark IT, Yelland GW et al. Cognitive impairment in coeliac disease improves on a gluten-free diet and correlates with histological and serological indices of disease severity. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, Volume 40, Issue 2, pages 160–170, July 2014