Gluten Free For Good


 

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I’m guessing you probably stopped by hoping to find a recipe for something exciting like peanut-butter chocolate cake or frosted cinnamon rolls. Maybe a nice cheesy casserole or a chocolate Easter bunny.

Sorry.

I’ve been sidetracked lately by the dazzling microcircuitry and super-powers of the cerebellum, my favorite brain region. You might want to stick with me on this, especially if you’re curious about the many ways gluten can wreak havoc on your health and derail your Cirque du Soleil ambitions.

Here’s the deal.

Ataxia is a lack of muscular coordination and balance. It’s a loss of precise movement. The main function of the cerebellum is to evaluate how well movements initiated by motor areas of the brain are actually being carried out. It’s responsible for orchestrating muscular action in a controlled way. If the motor areas of the brain aren’t skillfully doing their jobs, the cerebellum detects the discrepancies and via a complex network of feedback signals, attempts to correct the errors.

If you want to ride a unicycle and juggle while being distracted by women in short skirts twirling around on roller skates, you better have a high-functioning cerebellum. Do you remember world-class, short track, speed skating champion, Apolo Ohno? Didn’t it make you a little nervous watching him bumping elbows with the South Koreans while taking corners at high speeds? He was practically horizontal. My gosh, how did he manage to stay upright (at least most of the time)? That kind of movement takes dynamic balance, sensory control, reflex adjustment, and incredible coordination. The cerebellum takes note of everything that’s going on with the body in space and makes instant adaptations to maintain equilibrium.

That’s if nothing is sabotaging its performance (and yours).

This under-appreciated little structure of lobes, white matter, grey matter, and other assorted goodies accounts for only 10% of the brain mass, but contains approximately half the neurons (specialized nerve cells) in the brain. That gives you an idea of how important it is. Researchers are also finding the cerebellum plays a roll in cognitive function and language. There’s a lot going on in that part of the brain.

Now throw some gluten into the mix and you might have problems with even the simplest of movements. Like walking, skipping, catching a slow-moving beach ball, or retrieving a word from the tip of your tongue. Cerebellar ataxia is one of the most common neurological manifestations of gluten intolerance.

Dr. Alessio Fasano, world-renowned celiac specialist and Italian cutie-pie (well, isn’t he?) from the University of Maryland’s Celiac Research Center says, “The gut is not like Las Vegas. What happens in the gut doesn’t stay in the gut.”

Such is the case with gluten ataxia. People with the genetic and environmental susceptibility to gluten ataxia may not even have gastrointestinal symptoms, although the problems begin when gluten hits the small intestine. Unfortunately, the potential for damage doesn’t stay there. It can also have an impact on the brain. Studies show that 60% of patients with gluten ataxia show cerebellar atrophy on MRI. One study I read suggested that prolonged exposure to gluten in people with gluten ataxia was irreversible. Obviously, the sooner the diagnosis, the better. I’m not a doctor (I’m a nutritionist taking ballet lessons), but I believe a healthy gluten-free diet of nourishing whole foods and activities that stimulate cerebellar function can do wonders for people with neurological problems and can be protective for those without.

What kind of activities?

Dance lessons, yoga, tai chi, juggling, tennis—any activity that requires balance, movement, and attention to detail. Even tossing a beach ball back and forth stimulates the movement centers of the brain. Research shows that structural changes occur in the brains of people who engage in activities that require balance and coordination—jugglers, basketball players, speed skaters, dancers. If there is evidence of architectural changes, then why not exercise your cerebellum? Nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Plus, you might have fun in the process. Latin dance lessons? Ballet?

Check out this video of cerebellar rock stars, Bob, Trish, Chip and Laura. It’s short (1:17), fun, and will give you an idea of what it’s like to have a top-notch sense of balance and coordination. This kind of skill takes a lot of dedication and practice and I bet on MRI, these folks would have a blue ribbon network of neurons guiding their movements. They’re exercising their bodies, but they’re giving their brains a workout as well.

Basketball-Juggling Trick Shot (Chip and Laura Edition) with Bob and Trish

Dance, twirl, and exercise your brain. Your cerebellum with thank you.
Melissa

Resources:
• Sultan, F et al., “The cerebellum: Comparative animal studies,” The Cerebellum, 2007; 6: 168–176.
• Hadjivassiliou, M et al., “Gluten Sensitivity: from gut to brain,” Lancet Neural, 2010; 9: 318-330.
• Sapone, A et al., “Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification,” MBC Medicine, 2012; 10: 13.
• “Skaters’ Brains: Specialized training of complex motor skills may induce sports-specific structural changes in the cerebellum,” ScienceDaily, March 26, 2012; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120326112918.htm (accessed March 26, 2012)
• Gerard J. Tortora et al., Principles of Anatomy & Physiology (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003), 462-463, 472.
• William D. McArdle et al., Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance (Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007).

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24 Responses to “Gluten ataxia and cerebellar juggling”

  1. Ionah deFretias says:

    Melissa, I love your posts…always super informative and super fun!

    • Melissa says:

      Ionah,

      Oh, wow, so good to hear from you! Thank you for the kind words. I’m on a mission to increase awareness, so I appreciate hearing that someone likes these “quirky” posts of mine!

      I miss you. xo

      Peace and love,
      Melissa

  2. Melissa, your post on gluten ataxia was interesting and informative. Would you share your sources with me? I would appreciate it. Thank you. By the way, I shared this on facebook. Please visit my website sometime. I also write a blog on health and nutrition at functionalnutritionwithrob.com.

    • Melissa says:

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for stopping by and I’ll definitely go check out your website. I’ll update the post and cite my resources at the end. I actually meant to do that, but forgot. Thanks for the reminder. Much of this information came from my own experience working with people and living this lifestyle. I’m a nutritionist and also have a degree in exercise science, plus hundreds of hours of yoga teacher training, including adaptive yoga. A lot of what I write in my blog posts are my own theories and acquired knowledge.

      Check back shortly. I’ll have the resources cited on the post.

      Thanks for the reminder.
      Melissa

  3. Marilyn in Ontario, Canada says:

    Thank you Melissa for sharing Gluten ‘Unbalance’ Information. Gluten certainly does wreak havoc in us, ‘The Intolerant’. I was diagnosed with Celiac Sprue (Gluten Enteropathy) at the tender age of 8 months old. This was in the 50′s! I saw a plethora of doctor’s during my lifetime, as you can imagine! All told me… “You will outgrow this… just try to introduce food slowly, if it bothers you leave it for a while and try it later.” Celiac has affected so many aspects of my life… including 9 miscarriages, (I kept trying and was blessed with 4 children) and most recently,
    (actually around my 58th birthday) I had begun having Grand Mal (tonic-clonic) seizures. After being prescribed unbelievable pharmaceutical drugs. (and experiencing their terrible side effects) I have now… completely discarded all Allopathic doctors and their drug based knowledge and prescriptions and have totally embraced my own health and healing with Naturopathic, Nutritional Healing and Chinese Medicine. I have been completely symptom-free for over 7 months now! Believe me, Celiac & Gluten Intolerance affects every aspect of your life… including your children and your grandchildren! Please pass on… Gluten Intolerance IS genetic! Live in health… teach the children. Best regards, Marilyn

    • Melissa says:

      Marilyn

      Thank you SO much for your heartfelt comment. You’ve added so much good information to the conversation. Wow, that is amazing that you were diagnosed with celiac in the 1950s. But as you said, sadly, most people (docs included) believed that you could “outgrow” it. We all know that is not the case and each time you get even a small dose (crumbs), you elicit the antibody response and end up poisoning yourself once again. You never outgrow celiac and each dose of gluten causes damage.

      I’m so glad you’ve found a healing path. Stick with it. I know these “little” things can make a monumental difference in overall health. That’s why I promote an organic, whole foods diet, mind/body connections, quality sleep, stress reduction, movement, etc. I’m seriously taking ballet lessons and I was also born in the 50s, so it’s not like I’m a kid taking dance class! =)

      I believe we need to exercise our bodies and brains on a daily basis. Dance and language lessons are a fun way to do that.

      Hang in there and keep me posted. I love hearing success stories like yours.

      Peace and health to you!
      Melissa

  4. Do you know if there is a connection with gluten ataxia and meneurs (sp?) disease? The symptoms seem very similar. My father is diagnosed with meneurs and I am with celiac, but haven’t been able to convince him to be tested just yet. If eliminating gluten from his life would help, we might be able to save some of his hearing. That, and we might also be able to get him and his bride to go #gfcf for the betterment of my Autistic sister. Right now they look at me as if I am a practicing witch doctor, but the more evidence I have, the more likely they are to listen.

    :) Great post, thank you for all of the information (oh, and if you want some really good easter treats, be sure to come visit me. xoxo)

    SunnyB
    http://www.andloveittoo.com

    • Melissa says:

      SunnyB,

      I don’t know if there is a comorbidity between celiac disease and Meniere’s. I couldn’t find much scientific research connecting the two. I’m wondering if a gluten-free diet might help resolve some of the symptoms regardless of whether there is a connection. It’s worth a try, but I would suggest your father be tested for celiac disease before going on the GF diet. Since you have celiac, you got the gene from either your mom or your dad. It runs in families for a reason. Who knows, but you may be inadvertently protecting yourself from getting Meniere’s down the road. At least that’s a good thing!

      Thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate it.
      Melissa

  5. mary says:

    What about genetically inherited ataxia? Can it be affected by gluten?

    • Melissa says:

      Mary,

      I don’t know, but there is more and more evidence of gluten having a negative impact on the brain (in people who are susceptible). I don’t know the variables that make a person “susceptible.” It’s a new area of research, but it is worth being tested if you think you are reacting to gluten. The sooner the diagnosis, the better.

      Take care!
      Melissa

  6. Alisa says:

    Hmm, I was born clumsy, so perhaps this is something I should look into. Not sure about the dance lessons, but I can certainly toss a beach ball with the best of them :)

    • Melissa says:

      Alisa,

      I doubt you were born (or are currently) clumsy! I’m certainly fumbling around in ballet class, but it’s a lot of fun and a hard workout. I took a Latin dance class last week, but that was a bit much. I’ll stick with ballet. Less hip shaking going on. =)

      Melissa
      PS Remind me to tell you a beach ball story of mine one of these days. =)

  7. Thanks for this excellent post, Melissa! I do believe that folks are being diagnosed with all sort of neurological conditions/diseases that if not caused by gluten–and I believe many are–then at least the symptoms could be improved or resolved by a gluten-free diet. I know that before going gluten free, I had developed a number of balance issues (needed to hold the banister when going up/down stairs, could not stand on one foot to reach over and get something in a back corner of a cabinet, etc.) and they return when I get “glutened” now. Even gluten free, I feel I have different levels of cerebellar function according to my eating and activities (yoga, canoeing, etc.). Thanks for the reminder and inspiration once again! I don’t think I’ll ever be like the couples in the video–they are amazing!–but I can aspire to much more. :-)

    Shirley

    • Melissa says:

      Shirley,

      Thanks so much for adding to the conversation. You always have such good input and experience. Yes, the “kids” in the video are all amazing. You can “Like” them on Facebook and see more of their amazing antics. Plus, they’re always so upbeat. I love that!

      Melissa

  8. Maggie says:

    Melissa I love coming to your blog and having my brain worked out a little. It’s so fantastic. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by how powerful nutrition can be. It’s astonishing and I feel like we have such a big job to do to spread the word so other people can feel fabulous (for the first time, again, whatever). Thank you so much for putting something so science-based into layperson’s terms so I can begin to understand. If you only knew how much I love you and your ballet-taking self! xo

    • Melissa says:

      Maggie,

      Thank you! And you know I love you and your “early morning running” self. Yes, it’s so important to understand how much what we eat, do, think, etc. impacts our health. Nutrient-dense food makes for good building blocks for regeneration and recovery. We need that nourishment every day. Thanks for being on the “healthy living” bandwagon.

      Melissa

  9. Cathy says:

    I read about this gluten ataxia in an issue of Living Without last year. Pretty heady stuff (no pun intended…well, maybe). I tried ballet when I was thirty and felt like the hippos in Fantasia. But I still have a yen for some dance lessons, maybe something less demanding of grace.

    • Melissa says:

      Cathy,

      “Heady” stuff indeed. Great pun, by the way. Wish I had thought of that myself! I tried Latin dance not long ago and there was a huge lag time between what the teacher was doing to the music and what I was doing. Plus, I think I’m simply past the age of wanting to shake my booty and shimmy. =)

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I appreciate hearing from you. Let’s meet for lunch one of these days.

      Melissa

  10. Johanna says:

    Hi Melissia, that was so interesting! I to find the topic of nutrition super interesting, so much so that I am studying it (online) here in Australia. What is the difference between and Nutritionist and and Nutritional Therapist and can you recommend your career? My study is 4 years and I am finding the science quite challenging…. Thanks for a lovely blog, Johanna.

    • Melissa says:

      Hi Johanna,

      Sorry about the late response! That’s great that you are studying nutrition. The more we know, the better off we are. =) I’m a nutrition therapist, but that simply means we practice a holistic approach to health and wellness. We use nutrient dense foods as the base, but also incorporate other healthy lifestyle applications (stress reduction, movement and exercise, quality sleep, mind-body connections, etc.) into a wellness prescription. I understand your comment about the science part! My undergraduate degree was in exercise physiology, so I’ve taken lots of science classes over time. I love it, but you’re right, it’s quite challenging. Hang in there!

      Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate it.
      Melissa

  11. Cid says:

    Melissa,

    I’ve got what is often referred to around here as menopausal brainitis, sometimes I am forgetful but strangely enough I don’t forget the contents of your posts on the whole… that’s how good they are!

    I may put myself forward for analysis by Dr Fasano if my new maroon super balanced all terrain clogs prove defective :)

    Cid

    p.s. any plans for your debut at Sadler’s Wells in London? :)

  12. Melissa says:

    Hi Cid!

    I know what you mean about the brainitis issue! I lose words on occasion, which drives me nuts. And it’s often the simple words that disappear from my thought process. It really is just as important to exercise your brain as it is your body. My mother is “older” (well, I can’t say her age because she reads my blog and would be horrified if I said how old she was) and plays bridge weekly. She also uses the computer in a variety of ways, reads constantly, and pays attention to what’s going on in the world. She’s amazing and as sharp as can be. I think some of that is because she’s kept her mind active all these years.

    BTW, what happened to your leopard print all-terrain slippers? We won’t worry until we start opting for bunny slippers with vibram soles. =)

    Sadler’s Wells? I don’t know what that is, but I’m still searching for an excuse to come and visit you! If you have any ideas, don’t hesitate to email me. I’d love to venture over to Table #5 one of these days.

    Thanks so much for keeping in touch. Things have been hectic around here and my good intentions for up-to-date communication goes by the wayside at times.

    Melissa

  13. Nadya says:

    Great article (as usual!!)
    (& Sadler Wells is THE ballet company in London, LOL – get out your point shoes!! I actually went on point in my mid 30s, after beginning ballet as an adult! & took 3 weeks of Master classes with the Head Teacher from the Bolshoi right here in River City 19 years ago at 43!!!)

    I had a client yesterday (massage) Dx with ALS last summer, & when I asked about gluten, he said he & his wife didn’t eat much bread (such a common thought about where gluten ‘lies’!) … & that now they were just trying to enjoy eating whatever they wanted!
    Sigh
    I love your comment on movement helping (he does Yoga, & has done qigong etc as well)
    I found this link on guidelines for ALS folks: http://www.evenbetterhealth.com/als-diet.php – note #2 is to avoid all gluten!!
    “Gluten intolerance can result in both glucose intolerance and inflammation in the brain (Ann N Y Acad. Sci.2002 May;962:318-31). Inflammation in the brain is closely associated with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and dementia.”

    • Melissa says:

      Oh, Nadya, thank you for filling my in on Cid’s esoteric comments. =) You have no idea how enlightened I get from my readers (you included!). And thank you for the link. I’ll got check it out. I’m really interested in the neurological complications from gluten. There’s also a condition called Inclusion Body Myositis that sound suspiciously linked to celiac disease. It’s all quite interesting.

      Thank you, my friend!
      Melissa

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