By Dr. Shawn VanWinkle, DC

The popularity of gluten free diets is reaching an all time high. Demand for gluten free choices have been heard and answered in many restaurants across the nation and people no longer have to shop at specialty grocery stores to find gluten free food options. In years past, most of us have viewed gluten sensitivity as a gut issue that causes gut related symptoms. Common symptoms of gluten sensitivity affecting brain function include:


  • Fatigue
  • Brain Fog
  • Slowed Mental Processing
  • Mood Changes


The research is now clear that gluten sensitivity commonly affects function of the nervous system as well. There are numerous papers out there that have identified connections with many neurological disorders that affect tissue in the brain, spinal cord and even the nerves that go to your muscles in your arms and legs.

So why is gluten so harmful to the nervous system?

When people have sensitivity to gluten, their immune system identifies it as a foreign invader. When identified as a problem, the immune system will tag it for destruction. When the immune system mounts an attack, it will cause inflammation. If enough inflammation occurs, it travels through the body and can lead to break down of the blood brain barrier. This barrier protects unwanted molecules from entering the brain. The inflammatory chemicals can then cross over into the brain and can slow down the processing speed of the nervous system (much like having sludge build up in your car engine). If this continues to happen, another process called cross reactivity can occur. Many tissues in the body, especially nervous system tissue, have very similar structure to gluten. Eventually, the immune system can mistake tissue in the nervous system for gluten and can then start to attack it. When the immune system attacks self tissue, it is called autoimmunity. One of the most common neurological tissues attacked is the cerebellum. This can cause poor balance, decreased coordination and even vertigo. Another enzyme in the brain called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) can also be affected causing symptoms related to anxiety.

Gluten Testing

If you experience neurological symptoms or suspect you have sensitivity to gluten, it is important to get a proper evaluation done. Traditional genetic testing has proven to be outdated and it has been shown that gluten sensitivity can occur regardless of specific genotypes. Intestinal biopsies can also miss gluten sensitivity since it does not have to involve the gut. Blood tests that identify antibody production against gluten are much more useful today. Standard gluten tests only check for a portion of gluten called alpha gliadin. When testing for antibodies it is important to understand that there are multiple components of the wheat molecule that the immune system can make antibodies against. These include:


·       Alpha Gliadin

·       Omega Gliadin

·       Gamma Gliadin

·       Deamidated Gliadin

·       Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA)

·       Gluteomorphin

·       Prodynorphin

·       Transglutaminase-2 (TG2)

·       Transglutaminase-3 (TG3)

·       Transglutaminase-6 (TG6)


Notice the two that end in “orphin.” These proteins are actually opiods and if people make antibodies against them they can develop addiction to wheat. When they try to get off of wheat products they will often have withdrawal symptoms. The transglutaminases are enzymes that help digest gluten. These transglutaminases are found in different tissues in the body and therefore can be related to different symptoms. TG2 is found in the digestive system, TG3 in the skin and TG6 in the nervous system!

If you think you may have brain/nervous system symptoms related to gluten sensitivity it is important to find a practitioner that can help you identify it as well as develop strategies to improve and restore function. Many practitioners that are trained in functional nutrition/medicine can help you identify if you have a gluten problem and practitioners trained in functional neurology can help you develop a specific exercise protocol to improve brain function. Additional information can also be found in the following ground breaking book by Datis Kharrazian: “Why Isn’t My Brain Working? A revolutionary understanding of brain decline and effective strategies to recover your brain’s health.


Copyright © 2014 Integrated Health Systems. All Rights Reserved. Dr. Shawn VanWinkle, DC is a doctor at Integrated Health Systems. To learn more about how we can help you with your health goals visit our website at or email us at A free initial consultation can be scheduled by calling our office at 303-781-5617.