by: Sarka-Jonae Miller, March 13, 2012
Some people are literally stumbling through life thinking they are a klutz when really gluten is to blame. Before gastrointestinal symptoms like upset stomach appear, neurological damage may already be done, according to the Center for Peripheral Neuropathy. The Gluten Free Society calls gluten a "potential neurotoxin." Gluten damage may cause everything from unexplained dizziness to numbness in the hands and feet.
Approximately 10 percent of people with Celiac disease develop neurologic symptoms, according to the Center for Peripheral Neuropathy. Ataxia describes a neurologic condition characterized by jerky movements and an awkward gait. Gluten ataxia specifically describes a neurologic condition caused by a gluten sensitivity that leads to a wide range of symptoms, including:
• Difficultly concentrating • Loss of balance • Frequent falls • Visual disturbances • Trouble walking • Tremors • Trouble judging distances
In people with a gluten sensitivity, eating foods with the gluten protein triggers an autoimmune reaction. The body attacks the gluten with antibodies in the same way that antibodies attack viruses. This damages the intestines. Intestinal damage inhibits absorption of nutrients, often leading to nutrient deficiencies.
Vitamin deficiencies could be to blame for gluten ataxia, according to an article in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of Living Without magazine. Another explanation is that something in the brain is similar enough to gluten that the antibodies released to attack gluten also attack the brain.
The exact cause for gluten ataxia is unknown, but what is clear is that eating gluten makes it worse. A study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry in September 2003 found that participants with ataxia who followed a gluten-free diet demonstrated improvement in ataxia symptoms compared to the control group, and had significantly fewer antigliadin antibodies, or "anti-gluten" antibodies, after one year.
Neuropathy, or peripheral neuropathy, describes a range of disorders characterized by nerve damage to one or more nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. Often the cause of the neuropathy is unknown, though autoimmune diseases and vitamin deficiencies are some of the potential causes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Gluten neuropathy is when the autoimmune response is the root cause of the nerve damage.
A study published in Muscle & Nerve journal in December 2006 found that participants with neuropathy who followed a gluten-free diet showed significant improvement in symptoms after one year. The control group reported worsening of symptoms.
People who have a gluten intolerance do not respond to simple allergy tests like someone with a milk or nut allergy might. The gentlest way to figure out if someone is sensitive to gluten is dietary therapy. Avoid gluten for several weeks, then reintroduce it and observe any reactions.
Once it is known that a person has a problem with gluten there is only one form of treatment: abstinence. People with any degree of gluten sensitivity or intolerance must completely give it up. This means not only avoiding obvious foods like bread and pasta, but also foods like soy sauce and licorice that contain small amounts of wheat.
Fortunately, there are many alternatives. Pastas made with rice flour or quinoa are gluten-free. Rice bread can replace bread made from grains containing gluten. Buckwheat flour is gluten-free and works well for pancakes. Some companies even make wheat-free soy sauce. It is simply a matter of reading labels and shopping around.