What exactly is gluten brain? We investigate

Calling all coeliacs, and gluten-intolerant people – did you know that gluten can actually have a major impact on your brain?

Sure, you may be familiar with the stomach-related issues faced when you get *poisoned* with some accidental gluten, but this expert says you should consider other impacts too.

Speaking on Body+Soul’s daily podcast Healthy-ish, the first woman to be elected president of the Australian Medical Association, Professor Kerryn Phelps talks about how to eat for better brain function.

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“Gluten is a protein that’s found in a number of grains – wheat, rye, barley – and it’s also present in a lot of packaged and processed foods…People who have coeliac disease have a particular need to completely avoid gluten and that’s not only for their gut health, but it’s also for the rest of their body’s health and in particular, brain function,” she tells host Felicity Harley on the Healthy-ish episode What is gluten brain exactly?

She explains that there are also people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity that need to be wary of consuming gluten.

“Most people can eat gluten in a sandwich or a cake or a bowl of cereal, and they’ll have no problem with that, but for people with coeliac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, they will have a problem. They might have one of the gut problems that we are very familiar with, with gluten sensitivity or coeliac disease, but it can also affect the brain and the nervous system,” she says.

Clinically, this can show up as a headache, brain fog, problems with memory, or attention or cognitive function. Some may also experience gluten ataxia, where the patient has trouble coordinating and starts to become clumsy.

“There are all sorts of things that can show themselves as behavioural problems or cognitive or thinking problems when somebody has a brain sensitivity to gluten. So this is something that we need to think about when we’re looking at things like behavioural problems in children or cognitive issues in younger adults.”

Okay, so gluten is a no-no if you’re allergic or have a sensitivity, but how can you encourage better brain health through your diet overall?

While Professor Phelps says there is no ‘perfect diet’ as it will all depend on individual tastes, cultural factors and availability of food, the best diets eliminate dietary ingredients that don’t add to your health (processed foods, high sugar foods) and include foods that provide fundamental benefits to the body (leafy greens, fruits, wholefoods).

This includes diets such as:

  • Mediterranean diet: populations that follow this diet have the longest life spans and lowest chronic disease rates. “We know that it also has a beneficial effect on the brain and mental health, including reducing some of the symptoms of depression. It’s also been associated with slower cognitive decline,” says Phelps.
  • Dash diet: “This one was developed to help prevent and control high blood pressure. But it also was found to help dementia.”
  • Mind diet: A hybrid of the two above, it’s all about reducing the rate of cognitive decline.

Professor Phelps says all these diets have similar fundamental factors. Minimal red meat, minimal processed sugars, lots of plant based foods with a high vegetable and fruit intake and healthy fats such as olive oil.

In everything you eat it’s important to remember that you are providing fuel for the body and its vital organs.

“If you’ve got a major deficiency in some part of your brain, that will be reflected in the fact that you’ve got a deficiency in your diet of certain micronutrients and nutrients that are necessary for brain function,” says Phelps.

Find out more about your brain in Professor Phelp’s new book How to Keep Your Brain Young (Pan Macmillan, $32,99), here.

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