Gluten and Brain Health: Secret Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity – Part 3

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

Read Part 1 | Part 2

Adrenal Fatigue, Gluten and brain health

A man suffering from adrenal fatigue, which relates to his sensitivity to gluten and brain healthThe adrenal glands, which produce 50 different hormones, are part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is one of the body’s first responders to stress. It acts as a hormonal cascade, sending signals from the brain to the adrenals so that they release cortisol, the most important hormone in fighting stress. Gluten and brain health functions can contribute symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue.

Cortisol has many important functions, such as regulating blood sugar and blood pressure, maintaining heart and blood vessel function, suppressing the immune system, and neutralizing inflammation. Once the cortisol has completed its job, any excess then signals the hypothalamus and pituitary glands to stop producing their stimulatory hormones.

The adrenal glands and the HPA axis are part of the hormone response of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, which is the body’s overall mechanism for dealing with stress. The NEM is made up of six circuits composed of organs and systems that work together to respond to stress. Whether the stress is physical or psychological in nature, the NEM responds.

The hormone response of the NEM is covered above. The other circuits are the metabolic response, the neuroaffect response, the cardionomic response, the inflammation response, and the detoxification response.

Sensitivity to gluten, and to foods in general, can cause an immune system reaction that can then develop into a state of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a huge stressor on the system, and it triggers a stress response from the NEM and the adrenal glands. Chronic conditions, including celiac, as well as the malabsorption and maldigestion that can occur with it, are also huge stressors on the body.

Although the NEM and adrenal glands are equipped to handle acute, short-term stress, when the stress becomes chronic, they begin to dysregulate. The adrenal glands first increase their output of cortisol to meet the growing demand, but once they are exhausted from being overworked, their cortisol output drops, leaving the body to fend for itself against stress without its most important weapon.

This dysregulation of cortisol causes a state of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), with symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, mild depression, fertility issues, sleep disturbances, easily gaining weight and difficulty losing it, heart palpitations, PMS, food sensitivity, drug sensitivity, and more.

Many AFS symptoms are similar to those of gluten sensitivity. In fact, gluten sensitivity can lead to AFS, and AFS can worsen the symptoms of gluten sensitivity.

This is especially the case in more advanced stages of AFS when the body is forced into a state of energy conservation, and there is not enough energy for the gastrointestinal tract to function properly. Some of the symptoms of this “low maintenance mode” include constipation and diarrhea.

The gastrointestinal tract, gut microbiome, immune system and the brain are part of the NEM’s inflammation response. When this system is on constant overdrive from gluten sensitivity, or from the autoimmune reaction of celiac disease, or from the effects of gluten and brain health, inflammation becomes chronic.

This can also cause dysbiosis in the gut’s microbiome, where there is an imbalance in the gut flora. And vice versa, dysbiosis can trigger inflammation as well as metabolic issues.

Gluten and brain health causes of inflammationOne of the NEM Stress Response’s jobs is to release cortisol to help the body return to a balanced and calm state after the inflammation has done what was needed. But if there is AFS and cortisol is no longer able to suppress the inflammation, the inflammation worsens the symptoms of both AFS and gluten sensitivity.

This is not limited to the adrenal glands. A consistently triggered inflammation response can affect other circuits of the NEM, each one having a negative effect on the gut, gluten and brain health sensitivity.

For example, when the neuroaffect response (which is regulated by the autonomic nervous system) is dysregulated, it can also worsen depression, anxiety, insomnia, sleep disturbances, brain fog, and panic attacks.

This can include aggravating the effects casued by gluten and brain health. Depression can get worse. This is another indication that depression is caused by stubborn, low-grade inflammation.

All the circuits of the NEM affect each other, so when one dysregulates for long enough, it causes a domino effect for the rest of the system.

Brain Fog in AFS and Gluten Sensitivity

Brain fog is a common problem. It can be frustrating to be unable to think clearly, feel confused, have difficulty focusing, be unable to make simple decisions, have mild memory loss, or feel lightheaded and dizzy. It does seem as though a fog has come over the brain.

Though this not a clinically recognized condition, it is a symptom of other conditions, including AFS and gluten-related disorders. It is usually the result of nutritional, hormonal, biochemical, or metabolic imbalances that affect the brain.

The reason that brain fog is a common symptom of AFS is that, when the adrenals are fatigued, the body goes into energy conservation mode and slows down processes that are not immediately vital for survival. The liver clears out toxins and metabolites at a slower pace, letting them accumulate in the system. Eventually, these substances reach the brain and cause brain fog. The effects of gluten and brain health can increase this symptom.

For those with gluten-related disorders, gluten can also interfere with the hormonal and chemical balance in the brain directly. Indirectly, gluten creates a state of malabsorption, decreasing the levels of important nutrients the brain needs to thrive. These can include vitamin B6, vitamin B12, iodine, selenium, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D.

If your brain fog stems from gluten and brain health sensitivity, then your mood, cognition, mental focus, memory, and clarity should return if you change to a gluten-free diet. If your brain fog stems from adrenal fatigue as well, following the adrenal fatigue diet, taking the right supplements and managing stress will also improve your state.

Gluten and brain health causes for brain fogBrain fog can come from many other factors as well, though, such as sensitivity to electromagnetic fields, depression, stress, PTSD, bowel toxicity, environmental toxins, other food sensitivities, infections, nutrient deficiencies, artificial sweeteners, additives, pesticides, or certain medications.

Brain fog can also be affected by menstrual cycles, exercise (or lack thereof), hydration, sleep, and even body temperature.

The problem is that sometimes there are several different causes of brain fog, instead of just one. In this case, you will need to be patient and stay aware of how you feel as you make one change at a time. Nutritional coaching can also help you identify food sensitivities step by step and eliminate them from your diet.

What to Do If You Suspect You Have Gluten Sensitivity

As with many autoimmune disorders, the trigger seems to be the duration of exposure to environmental factors. In the case of gluten-related disorders, the effects of a sensitivity have a lot to do with how much and how long your system has been exposed to gluten. Unfortunately, most people have been exposed since early childhood.

This is why a thorough evaluation is highly recommended as early as possible, using the most sensitive biomarkers available and a detailed history

Even if you do not have any symptoms of gluten sensitivity or any family members who have it, if you suffer from any kind of autoimmunity, you should get tested.

This is the crucial first step, but what comes next will be the more challenging phase. That is where the real recovery will take place.

Gluten and Brain Health Sensitivity Recovery

After getting tested and understanding which of your systems are affected and what type of gluten-related disorder you suffer from, you will need to find a medical practitioner who is not only versed in gluten sensitivity but also knowledgeable about any other conditions you may have.

Those with celiac disease are at a higher risk of developing a second autoimmune condition, and may not even be aware of another condition present. In the haze of different and seemingly unrelated symptoms such as skin rashes and neurological problems, it can be difficult to tell what’s what.

However, it is imperative that you find out exactly what you are dealing with so that you do not aggravate one condition through taking measures indicated for another. In addition, if you are not suffering from celiac or gluten sensitivity, removing gluten from your diet is unnecessary and may backfire, depriving you of important nutrients.

Whatever other conditions you have, if you have gluten sensitivity, you need to eliminate gluten from your diet completely. Even trace amounts can cause a negative reaction, which can set your overall recovery back.

If you have severe AFS, your gluten sensitivity will tend to increase. Especially in the later stages of AFS, you can become so sensitive that even touching a wheat product can trigger a reaction. Keep in mind that recovery from adrenal fatigue does not mean your gluten sensitivity will resolve. You should still maintain a gluten-free diet.

Gluten and brain health dietary suggestionsA strictly gluten-free version of the AFS diet is your best bet at a fast, gentle, and full recovery. There is also a possibility that some supplements that help with adrenal fatigue will contain gluten, so be sure to check labels.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there is a tendency in those who recently found out they have a gluten-related disorder to use highly processed wheat and gluten substitutes, such as tapioca starch foods. Many of these foods can actually cause similar molecular mimicry and auto-inflammation processes, and they are best avoided as well.

Going truly gluten-free for health and vitality means more fruits, vegetables, and clean protein.

If you also have AFS, however, there are certain types of fruits you will want to avoid or limit. These include bananas, grapefruits, dates, and other potassium-rich foods. These foods aggravate the sodium-potassium imbalance that can come with AFS. You’ll also need to avoid fruits and juices in the morning because they can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, which someone with AFS is particularly sensitive to.

To bring down inflammation, try to follow an anti-inflammatory diet rich in antioxidants. Reduce and manage your stress levels, which are the root cause of AFS as well as stress-induced inflammation. Getting enough rest, staying hydrated, and starting a gentle exercise routine will also have many health benefits.

Good health is possible, and very probable, for those with gluten sensitivity, with a functional and holistic approach to health and nutrition. The effects of gluten and brain health can be dramatically reduced over time once gluten is out of the equation. Better digestion, clearer skin, and less joint pain are also in the cards once gluten is replaced with healthy, whole foods.

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© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Gluten and brain health