Nutrition in the News: Can gluten impact brain health?

Study finds gluten leads to brain inflammation in mice

A small scale study (reported in the Journal of Neuroscience in July), showed a direct correlation between the intake of gluten and brain inflammation in mice.

Whilst this was a small scale study with less than 100 mice, these findings are of particular interest to researchers as mice have very similar nervous, digestive and circulatory system to humans. Of course, further studies need to be conducted to see if gluten has a similar impact with human brains, but we should not ignore these findings.

The Study

gluten and brain inflammation

Over a 14-week period, male mice were fed either a low or high fat diet with either added gluten (equivalent to the average human intake) or no gluten at all. The researchers were interested in monitoring the impact of each dietary type on body weight, other metabolic markers and general inflammation. 

Not surprisingly to the researchers, gluten had a moderate impact on weight gain, but it surprised researchers to see gluten caused hypothalamic brain inflammation. The hypothalamic region of the brain is vital for coordinating basic metabolic functions like body weight regulation and blood sugar regulation.

Associate Professor Alex Tups said, “If these effects became persistent, they might exacerbate the risk of e.g. impaired memory function….. and blood sugar regulation.”

Gluten is found in common grains like wheat, rye and barley, which make up a significant proportion of the Western diet.

Why Brain Inflammation?

gluten and brain inflammation

One potential reason could be due to the components in gluten that resist digestion. This could lead to an immune response that leads to inflammation in the brain.

We already know that wheat gluten contains some proteins that are partially resistant to digestion by enzymes in the gut, and these undigested proteins could then build up in the small intestines. There, they could unfavourably alter the gut microbiome and/or increase gut intestinal permeability by irritating the gut mucosal barrier. 

If partially digested proteins find their way through the gut barrier into the bloodstream, they are detected as foreign by the immune system and this can lead to different reactions around the body.

Final Thoughts

gluten and brain inflammation

Many people now try to avoid gluten as it appears to upset the digestive tract, causing bloating, pain and irregular bowel movements. This may be another reason to consider gluten avoidance.

However, potentially it is a gluten overload in the system that is to blame? The Western diet is awash with wheat products. Perhaps the first step should be to cut right back, introduce gluten alternative products and focus on fresh natural foods like nature intended.

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Gut Health Nutritionist Caroline Peyton Principles
Caroline is a Professional Nutritionist, Naturopath based in Wiltshire.

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