Gluten – Irritates the Gut, Drugs the Brain
Gluten (the protein found in the grains wheat, barley, oats and rye) has wreaked havoc upon many a digestive system.
Its effects can range from a subtle sensitivity to a permanent intolerance.
Gluten has the potential to alter the surface of the gastrointestinal tract so that nutrients from food can not be absorbed.
This can result in severe malnourishment and distressing digestive complaints. This is also known as Coeliac Disease.
A diagnosis of Coeliac Disease occurs when there is evidence of Anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTG-IgA) in a blood test as well as changes to the lining of the small bowel as identified from a biopsy.
Anti-gliadin antibodies however are not routinely screened and this can indicate a gluten sensitivity.
Much of the press surrounding Gluten focuses on its effects on the digestive system. There is evidence however that links a gluten sensitivity to neurological and psychiatric conditions.
Put plainly, Gluten can affect the onset of ADD, ADHD, Autism or even Schizophrenia.
The Gut – Brain Connection
While we are sloshing around in the womb, numerous processes are at work.
Our gut and brain are formed from the same type of tissue – one type becomes the central nervous system (the brain) while the other develops into the enteric nervous system (the brain of the gut).
These two systems are connected via the vagus nerve and can explain the phenomena of butterflies in the stomach when you are nervous.
The Enteric Nervous system (ENS) does not complete its development until 2 years of age. Factors such as early antibiotic treatment can disrupt the intestinal microflora.
This will directly affect the ENS signalling which in turn impacts upon neuronal signalling and the development within the child’s brain.
So, what goes on in the gut will directly impact upon the health of the brain.
The Link between Gluten and ADHD
Dr Peter Green is a Director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. At a talk on November 11, 2010 at the U.C. San Francisco Medical Center, Dr Green stated: ”There is a whole spectrum of gluten sensitivity. For example, 80% of children with ADHD have high anti-gliadin antibodies. They do not however have celiac disease.”
80% of children with a gluten sensitivity. Definite food for thought.
When Food becomes a Drug
So how can gluten exert its influence on brain health?
Large protein molecules (Gliadin from Gluten and Casein from milk) are broken down into smaller peptides by the combined action of enzymes and hydrochloric acid in the stomach and small intestine.
To be absorbed effectively, these peptides are ideally no longer than four amino acids in length.
When gut function is not adequate (for example a leaky gut or poor enzyme capacity), it is common for peptides of seven amino acids or more in length to enter the bloodstream.
These partially broken down protein fragments can actually cross the blood brain barrier and interact with neurotransmitter receptors. They are structurally very similar to endorphins.
In fact, their target is frequently opioid receptors as shown in the diagram below.
So these itinerant peptides end up acting like endorphins would on the body. The activation of the opioid receptors controls pain, reward and addictive behaviours.
An opiate dependency can result in depression and social withdrawal.
Worringly, this has the potential to induce psychosis in susceptible individuals.
Who would have thought that the effects of gluten could be so alarming?
Despite the gloomy implications of the impact of gluten, all is not lost.
Starting your child on a gluten-free diet can be the first step towards improving the gut-brain connection.
Instead of relying on drug therapy to alter the brain chemistry, you can effectively take the drug out of the brain.
Gluten free diets are getting easier to implement thanks to the range of accessible, alternative options.
Below is a list of foods containing gluten and casein (milk protein) that are suggested to avoid, plus a list of recommended options.
So besides changing your diet and avoiding gluten like the plague, what else can you do?
Heal your child’s gut and decrease inflammation.
Did you know that a child’s intestinal barrier is not fully developed until after 2 years of age?
Little ones are therefore much more susceptible in their infancy to ‘leaky gut’. Even after two years of age they are more at risk due to either antibiotic use, NSAID use, inflammation and/or dybiosis (imbalanced gut flora).
If a child has dysbiosis, they are at greater risk of not only leaky gut, immune and inflammatory disorders but also toxin accumulation and central nervous system neurotoxicity.
To treat or protect your child from dysbiosis, give them a quality probiotic (good bacteria to balance out the bad).
These products will assist in breaking down foods better, so your children get the most out of what they’re eating.