Eating Gluten and How It Affects the Brain

New Zealand researchers have made a significant discovery regarding wheat gluten and its effects on the brain. Their study revealed that adding gluten to a low- or high-fat diet led to inflammation in the hypothalamic region of the brain, responsible for metabolism regulation. These findings suggest that gluten may trigger an immune response similar to that seen in individuals with celiac disease. Furthermore, this research also highlights a connection between nerve cell inflammation and the development of metabolic diseases. Given the similarities between mice and humans, these findings are quite relevant to our understanding of human physiology.

Gluten, a protein found in common grains like barley, wheat and rye, has been found to potentially cause inflammation in the enteric nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract as well as the brain. In a study with mice, male rodents were fed either a low-fat or a high-fat diet, with gluten later added. The results were significant – there was a noticeable increase in the number of astrocytes and microglia in a specific brain region called the arcuate nucleus (ARC) of the hypothalamus. This region is important for controlling metabolism.

Astrocytes and microglia, the immune cells present in the brain, share similarities with macrophages in the blood. These cells are known to contribute to inflammation. The hypothalamic region of the brain is responsible for managing metabolic functions that govern weight and blood sugar levels. Researchers proposed a hypothesis stating that inflammation in the hypothalamus caused by gluten can result in brain harm, weight gain, and compromised blood sugar regulation. Consequently, such conditions may heighten the risk of impaired memory function.

This study, though conducted on mice, is significant because mice and humans have many physiological similarities. Mice possess comparable circulatory, hormonal, digestive, reproductive, and nervous systems to humans. Therefore, it is plausible that the inflammation observed in mice could also occur in humans. During a period of 14 weeks, the mice were subjected to different diets: a low-fat diet consisting of 10% fat, a high-fat diet consisting of 60% fat, or these diets supplemented with 4.5% wheat gluten. This wheat gluten amount matches the average daily consumption of gluten by humans.

Gluten’s impact on body mass was different depending on the type of diet in male mice. When added to a low-fat diet, gluten had no effect on body mass. However, when added to a high-fat diet, gluten caused an increase in body mass and fat compared to a high-fat diet without gluten. The researchers also observed that adding gluten to the low-fat diet led to higher levels of C-reactive protein, an inflammation marker. Additionally, regardless of the type of diet, gluten led to a significant increase in the number of astrocytes and microglia in the hypothalamus.

This suggests that gluten may cause injury in the hypothalamus. Overall, this study provides evidence that dietary gluten can increase markers of inflammation in the hypothalamus.

To view the original scientific study click below:
Dietary wheat gluten induces astro- and microgliosis in the hypothalamus of male mice