This article was first published in Allergic Living’s Fall 2014 print edition.
The notion that gluten can affect the brain has generated its share of controversy in recent years, but now an Australian study confirms that for those with celiac disease, these symptoms are not all in their heads.
“This study has been able to show empirically and objectively that ‘brain fog’ is real,” Dr. Greg Yelland, study author, told Allergic Living. “We were pleased to find that, for untreated celiac disease patients, cognitive performance improved on a gluten-free diet.”
The researchers recruited 11 patients who had all been diagnosed with celiac disease but had not been on a gluten-free diet for more than four weeks. The patients were followed for a year and had blood tests and biopsies performed to monitor intestinal healing at several points in the study. At the same time, they were given tests for cognitive function as the study progressed.
Participants scored higher on their cognitive tests as their intestines healed as they followed the gluten-free diet. As well, the rate at which their tests scores improved was significantly influenced by the degree of intestinal healing. For one of the cognitive tests, the scores at the outset of the study were comparable to the level of impairment seen with a 0.05 percent blood alcohol level, which is nearing the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent.
The authors note that these cognitive effects could affect the performance of everyday tasks in people with untreated celiac disease.
“Given the extent of anecdotal reports of brain fog, we would have been surprised to have not found evidence of minor cognitive impairment in untreated celiac disease patients,” says Yelland, who works in the department of gastroenterology at Monash University in Australia.
This study was a small pilot, and more studies are needed to confirm the findings. If a larger study supports these results, the researchers note that various cognitive tests could potentially become a new non-invasive way to check for intestinal healing in those recently diagnosed with celiac disease.