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The 'G' Factor - The Benefits of a Gluten-free Diet

by Linda Lazarides BA(more info)

listed in detoxification, originally published in issue 101 - July 2004

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, spelt, barley and oats. It is also found in maize (corn), even though maize is usually sold as a gluten-free food.

Gluten grains and their flour provide the staples in the Western diet. Bread is our sacred 'Staff of Life'. We eat toast and cereals for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner. In between there are cakes, biscuits, croissants, flapjacks, crackers, batter, dumplings, puddings and sauces, all made from cereal flour and all containing gluten. A 'doorstep' of moist, succulent wholemeal bread is considered the ultimate health food.

But are our bodies really designed to rely so heavily on these foods? What are the symptoms of gluten overload?

Allergies and the Nervous System

Of course most readers of Positive Health already know that wheat-containing foods are highly prone to causing allergic reactions such as headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, joint pains and skin problems. Gluten is notoriously difficult to digest; particles can pass from the gut into the blood to form antibody complexes which stimulate the release of histamine in different parts of the body.

Some individuals are so severely allergic to gluten that the chronic inflammation it sets up in their gut wears away the absorptive surface of their gut wall and causes chronic diarrhoea and wasting due to severe food malabsorption. This condition is known as coeliac disease. Since deterioration of the nervous system is a known complication of coeliac disease, a study was carried out at the University of Sheffield, looking for antibodies to gluten in 53 patients with neurological diseases such as ataxia, peripheral neuropathy, myopathy and motor neurone disease. As many as 33 of these patients were found to have antibodies to gluten, compared with only six in a control group of 50 normal, healthy people. But none of the patients with anti-gluten antibodies had any specific gastrointestinal complaints.[1]

In a 1992 study carried out by the Italian Working Group on Coeliac Disease and Epilepsy, 24 of 31 patients with epilepsy and cerebral calcifications were found by intestinal biopsy to have undiagnosed gluten allergy, although they suffered no gastrointestinal symptoms.

The researchers also found that, if provided early enough, a gluten-free diet could beneficially affect the course of epilepsy.[2]

Mental Illness

The brain is, of course, the main organ of the nervous system, and there is increasing evidence that antibodies to gluten can also lead to symptoms of schizophrenia. The rate of schizophrenia is highest in parts of the world where wheat and rye are consumed; there is considerably less schizophrenia in regions where these cereals are not usually eaten.

Early-stage dementia or Alzheimer's disease may be associated with gluten antibodies. A gluten-free diet brought symptomatic improvement to nine patients with abnormalities showing up in a brain scan.[3]

The most exciting research to emerge more recently links gluten to autism. Large quantities of partly digested gluten particles have been found in the urine of autistic children. It was postulated that these particles might have a toxic effect in their own right rather than just stimulate antibody activity. Gluten particles (peptides) were tested on rat brain tissue. The peptides showed considerable differences in activity. While some peptides exhibited no activity, 0.5 mg of the most active peptides had an effect equivalent to a dose of morphine.[4] This morphine-like effect could account for much of the behaviour associated with childhood autism, and also with the drowsiness that many individuals experience after consuming wheat. In the study referred to, the most active peptides were derived from a fraction of gluten known as gliadin. Of all the gluten grains, wheat gluten has the highest gliadin content. There are now increasing reports of the benefits of a gluten-free diet on childhood autism.[5] [6]

Detox Diets

Detox diets are becoming increasingly fashionable. The one thing they all have in common is the avoidance of gluten. Considering the facts highlighted in this article, it is no surprise that people on a detox diet report feeling "lighter and brighter", "more clear-headed" and "more energetic". If this applies to you, perhaps you should consider removing gluten from your diet on a more long-term basis?

If you have one of the more serious conditions mentioned here, you should be aware that it takes three to six months for anti-gluten antibodies to disappear from the blood. And certain types of nerve tissue are not able to regenerate. Those which do have the potential to regenerate do so very slowly. Dr Hadjivassiliou, the principal researcher in this field at the University of Sheffield, says you can expect to see improvement or stabilization at about two years from the introduction of a gluten-free diet. In these cases, the usual four-week therapeutic trial would not be sufficient to show up the real potential for improvement.

Further information

More information on the dietary treatment of Alzheimer's disease, autism and schizophrenia can be found in Treat Yourself with Nutritional Therapy by Linda Lazarides (ISBN 0953804631). Further information on gluten and autism can be found at


1. Hadjivassiliou M et al. Does cryptic gluten sensitivity play a part in neurological illness? Lancet. 347(8998): 369-71. 1996.
2. Gobbi G et al. Coeliac disease, epilepsy, and cerebral calcifications. The Italian Working Group on Coeliac Disease and Epilepsy. Lancet. 340(8817): 439-43. 1992.
3. Hadjivassiliou M et al. Headache and CNS white matter abnormalities associated with gluten sensitivity. Neurol. 56: 385-388. 2001.
4. Huebner FR, Lieberman KW, Rubino RP, Wall JS. Demonstration of high opioid-like activity in isolated peptides from wheat gluten hydrolysates. Peptides. 5(6): 1139-47. 1994.
5. Reichelt WH, Reichelt KL (Ed. Gobbi G et al). The possible role of peptides derived from food proteins in diseases of the nervous system, epilepsy and other neurological disorders in coeliac disease. 31: 227-237. Institute of Pediatric Research, University of Oslo, Norway.1997.
6. Bowers L. An audit of referrals of children with autistic spectrum disorder to the dietetic service. J Hum Nutr Diet. 15(2): 141-4. 2002.


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About Linda Lazarides BA

Linda Lazaridesis a nutritional health expert, founder of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists, and worked with a GP for several years to develop her treatment methods. She is author of eight books, including the Amino Acid Report and Treat Yourself with Nutritional Therapy and teaches 1-year internet-based training course for Naturopathic Nutritionists. Visit Linda's website at

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