By: Melanie Murphy, Graduate Student, Master’s of Science in Nutrition, USC
Just a few years ago, telling people that you were avoiding gluten would have immediately classified you as a “weird health nut.” In fact, it wasn’t until recently that anyone could accurately identify what gluten even was. Flash forward just a few short years, and foods labeled as “gluten-free” line mainstream grocery store shelves, and many people from a variety of health backgrounds tout improved digestion, mental clarity and increased energy as a result of avoiding this wheat-derived protein.
Historically, the effects of dietary gluten has been widely and primarily studied as it pertains to individuals who have Celiac Disease, a serious autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, leading to a series of severe gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms (diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, etc.) as well as nutrient malabsorption. In this fairly small percentage of individuals, avoiding gluten is not a matter of preference but rather a serious medical and nutritional necessity. Today, however, there have been further studies indicating a new sub-class of individuals with a condition called “gluten sensitivity” in which a gluten-free diet may not be a life-threatening necessity, but may actually improve a variety of health symptoms including digestion, energy, brain fog, weight management and more. Because some of the side effects and symptoms of gluten sensitivity are not digestive (and therefore not as obvious), some people with this issue may not realize they have it. Perhaps they never associated their lethargy or forgetfulness to the gluten in their food.
Even more recently, some researchers have begun to look more seriously into the effects of a gluten-free diet on improved memory in those with non-Celiac, gluten sensitivities. So what is the current research telling us about the association between a gluten-free diet on improved memory for people with gluten sensitivity?
The short answer is: not much… yet.
The bulk of the research available now pertains specifically to the potential neurological benefits of a gluten-free diet for those with Celiac Disease. That said, however, for those people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten’s primary impact on the body is increased inflammation, most specifically to the gut, which can cause irritating symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and more. When the gut is inflamed for prolonged periods of time, you risk causing damage to your gut flora (otherwise known as the good bacteria in your gut) which are responsible for sending certain signals to your brain when you are hungry or full, for example. (For you health nerds, this process is called the brain-gut connection). If your gut is inflamed, many hypothesis predict that this most certainly will impact your brain as well, although more definitive research is needed to fully explain how and to what extent your brain and memory might be impacted.
The long and short of it is this: know your own body and pay attention to how it reacts to the foods you eat. Gluten is not bad. In fact, the majority of people have no issues - digestive or otherwise – by eating a gluten-filled diet. However, if you find that eating gluten causes bloating, abdominal pain, GI-symptoms or brain fog, you may try limiting it from your diet and see if you feel better. When in doubt, visit a gastroenterologist or a Registered Dietitian for more guidance. You might find that you do, in fact, have a gluten sensitivity and could benefit greatly from a gluten-free diet.