Does Gluten Cause Brain Fog?

For many, gluten can act as a hidden culprit in our food system, triggering a plethora of unwanted side effects. Brain fog, among the top negative side effects, is characterized as impaired cognitive functioning that can cause disorientation, make it difficult to focus, and affect short-term memory. Those with celiac disease, the most extreme form of gluten intolerance, report brain fog as a common troubling side effect. Interestingly, a study conducted in Australia found that the level of cognitive impairment in celiac disease patients when exposed to gluten was similar to the level of impairment found in people with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, which also happens to be the upper legal limit for driving in Australia, via Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Put another way, U.S. studies show that's at least 4 drinks for a 170-pound male within 2 hours on an empty stomach, and 3 drinks for a 137-pound female, according to Society for the Study of Addiction.

Gluten-sensitive brain fog

Brain fog isn't only reported in celiac populations, but in Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitive (NCGS) individuals as well. (NCGS) is a condition with similar symptoms to celiac disease, but without the genetic and auto-immune factors. One 2020 clinical study found that (NCGS) patients reported a 48% prevalence of brain fog, the second most common neurological symptom related to the condition, behind headaches (via Plos One). The onset of neurological symptoms happened on average of 90 minutes after gluten consumption and resolved within 48 hours. But some health experts caution against eliminating gluten for those who have not been diagnosed with a gluten-intolerant condition, claiming there's no evidence to suggest gluten adversely affects cognitive function. Such experts point to a large cohort study of middle-aged women without celiac disease who were studied over the course of 28 years. Researchers concluded that there were no adverse cognitive impairments (reaction time, attention, and memory) associated with gluten consumption, via Harvard Health Publishing.

Gluten and brain health

Many health experts not only point to a lack of evidence regarding a link between gluten and brain fog, but they also warn that eliminating certain gluten-containing foods can deplete the diet of key nutrients that actually promote cognitive health. For instance, one 2016 cohort study found that dietary patterns with a lower intake of whole grains and a higher intake of red and processed meat, sweets, desserts, fried foods, and refined grains, increased inflammation in the body. This constant low-grade inflammation led to faster cognitive decline in reasoning, most strongly noted in younger participants (via Clinical Nutrition). One of the most important distinctions to make when choosing whole grains is quality. Highly processed and refined whole grains don't offer the same health benefits as unrefined whole grains. Cracked wheat and whole grain couscous are examples of whole grains that may promote brain health, according to Mayo Clinic. Because brain cells require a steady supply of glucose, these complex carbohydrates can offer a steady supply of energy while also providing a high amount of dietary folate and vitamin B, two important, brain-supportive vitamins.