Is Gluten Bad for Your Brain Health?

By | September 14, 2015

gluten-brain-grain-wheatWe note that local Public Broadcasting System (PBS) channels across the US have been airing a fundraising program centered on the BrainChange and Brain Maker infomercials, hosted by David Perlmutter M.D.

Dr. Perlmutter, a neurologist by training, is known for offering opinions (backed by some reliable research) that eating certain types of food can either increase or decrease the risk Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The 90 minute BrainChange and Brain Maker programs on PBS are the latest editions.

The BrainChange program uses a catchy marketing hook “If you could make just three simple changes in your life to prevent, or even reverse, memory loss and other brain disorders, wouldn’t you?”, and offers viewers a $144 “BrainChange Master Package” of DVDs and a book.

As a public service, we’ll save readers the $144, and validate the scientific evidence behind each of the major claims in the PBS BrainChange program:

greencheck1BrainChange Claim #1: Sugar is bad for brain health. Eliminate or reduce sugar (especially sugar in processed foods) from your diet.

Scientific evidence for this claim: High.

Research studies have confirmed a larger risk of cognitive impairment with elevated blood glucose readings, including levels that are currently considered high-range normal. Even “normal” blood glucose levels can produce increased oxidative stress and heightened inflammatory responses in the brain, both of which are bad news for cognitive health. This research article provides a detailed overview on blood glucose levels and cognitive health.

A realistic approach to reducing excess sugar consumption is to cut out all sugar from sodas, energy drinks, sugary cereals and pastries (yes, that includes muffins and donuts).

Also, avoid the appallingly unhealthy sugar bombs masquerading as “coffee”, such as this 66 gram sugar monster from Starbucks.

greencheck1BrainChange Claim #2: “Good fats” support brain health. Eat more fats from sources such as salmon, avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds.

Scientific evidence for this claim: High

Omega 3 fatty acids – both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) — sit squarely in the concept of “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” Omega 3 has anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertensive effects on the cardiovascular system, and it also reduces plaque buildup in arteries. In addition, DHA & EPA are beneficial for cognitive health, especially for learning and memory.

A note on Omega 6/Omega 3 ratios (our body needs both types): An overload of pro-inflammatory Omega 6 in typical western diets from sources like corn oil, most fried foods, frozen processed foods, margarine, and peanuts is associated with unhealthy outcomes like diabetes and obesity.

Whenever possible, choose fresh vegetables, lean meats, and fish over fast food burgers and fries. See this Healthy Brain Dinner recipe for an Omega 3 rich feast.

redx1BrainChange Claim #3: Gluten and grains can cause Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Eliminate all grains and gluten-containing foods from your diet.

Scientific evidence for this claim: Crickets….aka None

There is no peer reviewed published evidence to support this last claim that gluten is a factor in developing Alzheimer’s disease.

A query to Neurology, the authoritative science journal of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), results in zero peer reviewed studies regarding gluten’s potential impact on developing Alzheimer’s or dementia. The deafening silence on this topic from the largest neurology professional association is telling.

(There are a few Neurology articles on gluten ataxia, a movement disorder likely associated with celiac disease. See this research article for more detail)

For the 99% of humans who don’t have celiac disease, moderate amounts of “ancient” whole grains (einkorn, emmer/farro, quinoa) is a healthy choice and an essential part of the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with a lower lifetime risk of dementia.

A Comment on Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NGCS)

Non-withstanding the lack of evidence for gluten as a factor in Alzheimer’s disease, it is interesting to note an increase in medical research regarding a substantial rise in reported non-celiac gluten sensitivities in many people.

A recent review in this Gastroenterology journal points out that in addition to gluten, wheat contains pro-inflammatory amylase trypsin inhibitors, and also a number of short-chain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs, commonly found in wide range of wheat products. FODMAPs are essentially variations of sugar, and can cause a number of inflammatory responses in the small intestines.

The implication here is that gluten may end up being an unremarkable bystander in a more complex story of gut biome <-> brain axis interaction, including the inflammatory response from FODMAPs, that medical science is only beginning to understand.

Food for thought, so to speak.

Further reading: Linking Exercise to a Healthy Brain