Most of the articles about gluten and celiac disease I’ve came across in the media have focused on symptoms related to digestion, such as abdominal pain and bloating after eating gluten, and damage to the small intestine. The bulk of the gluten-related discussions on the celiac forums I’ve perused concern questions and answers regarding the diagnosis of celiac disease and tips for following the gluten free diet. There have been several papers published over the last few years about the neurologic effects of gluten exposure for those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. I do not believe that they have gotten the attention that they deserve in the media or on the forums. I am especially interested in this area as over the last few months I have developed a peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) related to having celiac disease.
Dr. Hadjivassiliou is one of the leading researchers on neurologic problems related to gluten exposure. Although I have no idea how to pronounce his name, I can tell you that he is on faculty in the Department of Neurology at Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, United Kingdom. My favorite paper of Dr. Hadjivassiliou’s is a review article titled, “Gluten sensitivity: from gut to brain,” which was published in the Lancet, a major medical journal, in 2010. In this paper, gluten sensitivity refers to both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Some of the key points of this paper include the following:
• Most patients with neurologic symptoms related to gluten do not have gastrointestinal symptoms.
• Ataxia (a problem with balance and coordination) and peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) are the most common neurologic symptoms related to gluten. Up to 25% of celiac patients on a gluten free diet will develop a peripheral neuropathy at some point.
• Patients with neurologic symptoms often have celiac “autoantibodies” on blood testing, usually anti-gliadin (AGA) antibodies and/or tissue transglutaminase (TTG) antibodies. Many patients with these antibodies have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, meaning that they have high celiac antibody levels and symptoms, but no evidence of villous blunting (seen in celiac disease) on small bowel biopsy.
• The average age of onset of gluten ataxia is 53 years and for the gluten-related peripheral neuropathy is 55 years.
• Brain MRI findings can include cerebellar atrophy (loss of volume) and/or white matter lesions which may mimic those seen in multiple sclerosis.
• Neurologic symptoms often improve on a strict gluten free diet but may never resolve completely.
Gluten sensitivity has also been associated with seizures, dementia, and migraines. Obviously, further research on the effects of gluten on the brain and nervous system is needed. I’ve came across many people on the celiac forums who have psychiatric symptoms related to gluten exposure as well, although this has not been well-studied.
It seems especially frightening that many people who develop neurologic problems, like me, do so when they are already on the gluten free diet. This is a reminder that even small traces of gluten can cause serious damage to those of us who are gluten sensitive. If you have any family members or friends who develop ataxia or a peripheral neuropathy of an unknown cause, I urge you to recommend an evaluation for celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
For further reading on the this topic I would suggest the following links:
1. “Brain Abnormalities Common in Celiac Disease Patients,” by P. Harrison, published in Medscape Neurology News on September 10, 2012.
2. Dr. Hadjivassiliou’s Lancet Neurology article, “Gluten Sensitivity: From Gut to Brain,” published in March 2010.
3. Living Without Magazine article, “Gluten Attack: Ataxia,” found in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue.