For decades many doctors have encouraged patients to skip vitamins and eat a “well balanced diet.” What that means exactly has been hotly debated for a very long time. One key component, though, has always been whole grains like wheat, barley and rye.
What Is Wrong with Wheat, Barley or Rye?
The only trouble with this recommendation is that for roughly three million Americans it is poison. People with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in these grains.
When they eat foods made with flour such as pasta, pizza or even whole wheat bread, the lining of the small intestine is severely damaged. As a result, such patients cannot absorb key nutrients from their diet and they may suffer from a range of serious symptoms.
Digestive tract upset is not uncommon. Many people complain of discomfort ranging from heartburn, gas and bloating to cramping and diarrhea. Others experience fatigue, anemia, an itchy skin rash, nerve pain, migraines or osteoporosis.
Celiac Disease May Mimic Alzheimer’s:
But one of the most insidious and easily overlooked complications of celiac disease may be dementia. Physicians are rarely taught that celiac disease may mimic Alzheimer’s. As a result, forgetfulness is usually attributed to aging or Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors may overlook the possibility that cognitive impairment could be a consequence of celiac disease.
After listening to a radio show we hosted on celiac disease, a listener shared this story:
“Your program may have saved my life. I know it saved my sanity.
“The more people talked on the show, the more I thought ‘That sounds like me!’ I had heard of celiac disease, but I did not know it could show up in adulthood. I figured I had nothing to lose by eliminating wheat from my diet for a while.
“After a week of rice and vegetables, I couldn’t believe how much better I felt. The bloating, gas, diarrhea, and puffiness were gone. Best of all, though, the depression, lethargy and inability to concentrate and think began to lift.
“Not long before, I had insisted my doctor test me for Alzheimer’s! I was losing my ability to recognize faces. I couldn’t have written a letter because I wouldn’t have been able to sustain a train of thought long enough to get past the first paragraph.”
Celiac Disease and Cognitive Impairment:
Research from the Mayo Clinic suggested that celiac disease should be considered when people start having trouble thinking, doing simple math or remembering things (Hu et al, Archives of Neurology, Oct. 2006). A review of patient records revealed several people who had been diagnosed with both celiac disease and dementia. In two cases, following a gluten-free diet reversed the cognitive decline.
Scientists still find that celiac disease is associated with cognitive decline, but so is non-celiac gluten sensitivity (Makhlouf et al, Acta Neurologica Belgica, March 2018). They recommend that a gluten-free diet be instituted as soon as possible after diagnosis due to its potentially protective effect.
Earlier diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease with a completely gluten-free diet might be able to keep some people from developing cognitive problems that resemble Alzheimer’s disease. In some instances, a thorough diagnostic workup for cognitive dysfunction might reveal underlying celiac disease (Pennisi et al, Frontiers in Neuroscience, Sep. 5, 2017).
The Lowdown on Celiac Disease:
Celiac disease is far more common than most people realize. It often goes undiagnosed for years because symptoms are varied and nonspecific. Perhaps as this condition gets more attention, it will become rare for people to suffer from the debilitating consequences.
To learn more about celiac disease, you may wish to listen to our interview with Dr. Joe Murray, Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. It is Show 1100: What Is the Story on Celiac Disease?