Your Brain on Gluten

It is always amazing to me the powerful effects gluten has on our brain. With growing data being produced and studies being done, I’d like to share with you the information I have found about how gluten effects your brain. I have compiled my findings, and specific passages from articles which point out the neurological effects that gluten has on the brain.

The Facts

According to, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, One in five Americans experienced some sort of mental illness in 2010. That means that more than 57 million Americans have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Women were more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness than men (23 percent of women versus 16.9 percent of men), and the rate of mental illness was more than twice as likely in young adults (18 to 25) than people older than 50.

Researchers and doctors alike have speculated the role that gluten might play in the effects it has on the brain. A great example of this is in the following passage found in the article Neurological Effects of Gluten Intolerance by Wendy L Cohan, RN, November, 2010 which reads as follows:

“Gluten sensitivity can lead to neurological and mental health effects in various ways, including: Triggering inflammatory autoimmune responses throughout the nervous system; Producing narcotizing effects on the brain; Inducing changes in brain perfusion, or blood flow; And, through celiac disease, causing the malabsorption of key nutrients necessary for optimum neurological and mental health. We know that certain foods, including gluten, can trigger neurological and behavioral symptoms; we also know that people who exhibit learning disabilities, mood instability, mental illness, and even criminal behavior, can change their diets and overcome previous behavioral patterns to live healthy, productive lives.”

Dr. Ron Hoggan, Ed.D., co-author of a book titled “Cereal Killers” also has similar views on this topic, stating: “I am fascinated by the way that gluten induces illness and impedes learning while it alters mood, behavior, and a host of other facets of human existence. Sure, gluten’s impact on health is an important issue, but that is only the most obvious area of impact. Mood disturbances, learning disabilities, and the loss of quality of life due to psychiatric and neurological illness are even more tragic than the plethora of physical ailments that are caused or worsened by gluten.  The further I go down this rabbit hole, the more I realize that grains are a good food for ruminants – not people.”

Severe Effects

Gluten can have a very severe effect on your brain. Gluten has been linked to greater neurological disorders, and having similar qualities as drugs, such as opiates or LSD. I have found this article to be very interesting called, Hippies Weren’t the Only Ones Tripping in the Sixties, which is also written by Dr. Ron Hoggan, Ed.D., specifically the following passage:

“the presence of psychoactive peptides in the incomplete digests of gluten grains, including some with morphine-like properties, which they named “exorphins”.  Subsequent research by Fukudome and Yoshikawa has shown that there are five separate sequences from gluten grains that have psycho-active properties.”

The article continues to explain that there are major neurological disorders which are suggested to be related to the effect gluten has on our brains. These disorders include dyslexia, schizophrenia, aphasia, and cognitive deficits; including learning disabilities, and behavioral abnormalities, as well as a laundry list of cognitive impairments in association with celiac disease including amnesia, acalculia, confusion, and personality changes.

Common Neurological Symptoms

According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Gluten can cause neurological harm through a combination of cross reacting antibodies, immune complex disease and direct toxicity. The nervous system affects include: dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, cerebella ataxia, hypotonia, developmental delay, learning disorders, depression, migraine, and headache. As a person with celiac disease, I have personally been experiencing several symptoms more frequently, including severe migraines, (which at times can be debilitating) a short attention span, and memory loss.

One of my favorite doctors to read is Dr. Vikki Petersen, founder of the HealthNOW Medical Center. She is also the co-author of the book The Gluten Effect. I came across this article of hers from 2010 titled Gluten, Migraines and other Neurological Problems, in which she covers some very interesting study information regarding such symptoms:

“A study of 72 adults, 62 of whom were women, ranged in age from 36 to 66 and all were confirmed celiacs through biopsy and diligent on their diets. A full 28 percent had a history of migraine and many of them did see improvement in frequency and intensity on a gluten-free diet.”


I find these facts to be quite amazing that even on a gluten-free diet, their symptoms were still there. That makes me wonder what type of gluten-free diet those patients were on. Now, I’m not a doctor, but would a true gluten-free diet compared to a traditional gluten-free diet have played a better role in the healing process? That’s just my questioning. The article continued on to explain what the researchers found it to be:

“researchers concluded that celiac was the likely cause of the neurological disorders. They felt the link to be in part due to an immune related inflammatory change that occurred in the central and peripheral nervous systems….and that while the gluten-free diet had resolved digestive and intestinal symptoms it had not prevented the development of neurological problems.”

According to that study, their gluten-free diets did heal their digestive and intestinal problems, however I am not fully convinced. If their entire digestive tract were healed, I think it would have played a larger role in also healing the neurological issues. That’s just what I conclude based on my education and experience with celiac disease. I am certain that there is a lot more that goes into the healing process though. Healing the digestive tract is a major part of it, but as Dr. Vikki Petersen points out in the the rest of the article, you need to treat the body as a whole. She mentions a full healing to their digestive tract, reducing inflammation, identifying  and treating any underlying infections and restoring hormonal imbalance.

I really applaud the approach she takes when healing her patients. I am fascinated by this disease, and how it can effect not only the brain but your entire body. It is a wish of mine to be seen by such a physician. I believe in healing the whole, mainly by holistic and eastern approaches. I think that there are times when western study is necessary though, especially when you are in need of specific medications.

This is a very serious condition, which can have life-long effects on your health. If you or someone you know suffers from these symptoms, I advise you to speak with a healthcare professional. For more information about how gluten affects your brain, you may read “Withdrawals Associated with the Addictive Nature of Gluten.” If you are unsure if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance/sensitivity and would like to know more, read “Celiac Disease Symptoms and Diagnosis.”  Thank you to all of the doctors and researchers out there for providing and producing such wonderful information and research!


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health
Dangerous Grains by Ron Hoggan
Gluten Free Choice Consulting by Wendy L Cohan, RN, November, 2010

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