House CallOct/Nov 2014 Issue

Research Roundup: Brain Fog Is Real, Allergy Anxiety, and More


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Photo by 123rf/ vivivasnc

Brain Fog Is Real

Celiacs often complain about brain fog—difficulty concentrating, lapses in short-term memory and word-finding difficulties. Now a small study from Australia provides evidence that brain fog is, indeed, a real phenomenon.

Celiacs who were just starting out on the gluten-free diet scored lower on a battery of cognitive tests than they did after one year of dietary treatment. In fact, on one test, cognitive performance was comparable to what’s seen in those suffering from severe jetlag or the effects of alcohol use.

Fortunately, after one year on the gluten-free diet, improvement was observed across the board, with particular improvement in processing speed and short-term memory.

Cognitive improvement tracked closely with intestinal healing, which was measured twice via biopsy during the study. The findings raise the possibility that a small battery of cognitive tests might offer doctors an easy way to regularly screen celiac patients for intestinal healing.

The study was published in May in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

Prevalence of Gluten Sensitivity

It’s widely reported that up to 6 percent of the population is gluten sensitive. Now new research suggests that the number may be lower—just 1 percent. (Celiac disease also affects 1 percent of the population.)

In the new study, researchers spent a year evaluating all new patients at celiac centers across Italy for gluten sensitivity. Those diagnosed with the condition were overwhelmingly female (84 percent) and most suffered from gut symptoms similar to irritable bowel syndrome, as well as symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, depression and joint pain.

There’s not yet a definitive test for gluten sensitivity, making accurate estimates of its prevalence difficult. Diagnosis is usually made after ruling out celiac disease and wheat allergy and noting an improvement in symptoms on the gluten-free diet. The study was published in May in BMC Medicine.

Gluten-Free for IBD

Nearly 20 percent of people with inflammatory bowel disease—or IBD, which encompasses both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—say they’ve tried the gluten-free diet. Eight percent continue to follow the diet even though they don’t have celiac disease, according to a study that included a large survey of IBD patients.

There’s good reason to try the diet, say patients. Over half of those who attempted the diet experienced some form of improvement in their gastrointestinal symptoms and/or fatigue when avoiding gluten; a third said they experienced fewer or less severe IBD flares. Many also reported they needed less medication to control their disease.

Findings call for research into the possible mechanisms by which eliminating gluten might improve IBD. The study was published in July in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.

Allergy Anxiety

Parents and caregivers of milk- and egg-allergic children feel more anxiety and stress than those caring for peanut- and tree nut-allergic tots, according to a study published in July in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The finding surprised researchers, who expected that parents of peanut- and tree nut-allergic kids would worry the most.

“It’s assumed peanut and tree nut allergies are the most severe…but because milk and egg are everywhere and used to prepare so many dishes, caregivers with children allergic to these two ingredients feel more worried and anxious,” researchers explained in a press release.

Having a clear understanding of the child’s allergy—knowing exactly what foods may cause a reaction—and having an action plan in case an offending food is accidentally eaten can go a long way to easing worries, say researchers.

Skin Cream Warning

Researchers have linked the use of a “natural” skin lotion to the development of a food allergy. In June in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, researchers described a patient who experienced anaphylaxis from eating goat cheese. The adult patient, who had previously tolerated goat products, had been applying a lotion containing goat’s milk to irritated skin for several weeks prior to having anaphylaxis. Blood tests confirmed the new allergy.

According to an American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) press release, the application of lotions containing goat’s milk, cow’s milk, coconut milk or oil, nut oils or oats (common ingredients in many natural cosmetic products) to damaged skin could cause food-allergen sensitization in those genetically susceptible, leading to severe reactions when that food is eaten.

Dietary Counseling

Meeting with a dietitian is often recommended when a child is diagnosed with a food allergy. Now a new study stresses the importance of this dietary counseling in young children.

Prior to working with a dietitian, food-allergic tots in this study took in fewer daily calories and less protein than their non-allergic peers. Six months after dietary counseling, the caloric intake of the two groups was similar. Improvements in other measures of nutritional status were also noted.

The study was published in June in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Diabetes Risk

The gluten-free diet may help lower the risk of developing type 1 diabetes, according to preliminary research on mice published in April in Diabetes.

Mouse pups whose mothers were fed a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and lactation had lower rates of type 1 diabetes than those fed a standard diet. The gluten-free diet seemed to change the intestinal bacteria in both mothers and pups. Intestinal bacteria—collectively known as the intestinal flora—is thought to play an important role in the development of the immune system, as well as in the development of type 1 diabetes. Clearly, studies in humans are needed next.

Photo by shutterstock/neale cousland

Gluten-Free Athletes

Tennis star Novak Djokovic and Saints quarterback Drew Brees are among the high-profile athletes who don’t have celiac disease but reportedly follow the gluten-free diet. A new study suggests they’re not alone.

Close to half of the non-celiac competitive athletes who took part in this large online survey said they follow the gluten-free diet at least 50 percent of the time. Many indicated they feel better when avoiding gluten, with less gastrointestinal symptoms and/or fatigue. The study didn’t address whether the diet actually improved their athletic performance.

Results were published in June in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

Food Allergy Bullying

Bullying due to food allergy is a chronic problem, a new study warns. Two-thirds of children who reported being bullied as a result of their food allergy were still being bullied a year later. For those whose bullying had stopped, parental involvement—particularly when school personnel were brought in—played a big role.

The study tracked 250 families with food-allergic children at two points approximately a year apart. At both times, about a third of children with a food allergy reported being bullied because of their allergy.

The study was published in June in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.

Senior medical correspondent Christine Boyd lives in Baltimore.


Comments (1)

I don't know how much smarter I would have been if I realized I couldn't handle gluten as early as possible. My health had been getting worse and worse until I stopped eating gluten, and my fatigue improved. My sleep apnea also disappeared! I went to sleep lab and got a recent report that I no longer had sleep apnea anymore.

As for brain fog, I don't know if mine was brain fog. After drinking milk, my mind went blank and couldn't focus. I don't recall if I actually have worse short term memory, just very distracted. Here is my experience:

I also got bullied a lot as well. I think gluten really caused a lot of weird behaviour in me. I thought I had ADHD or even autism, but it could be gluten.

Posted by: Steve Lo | November 24, 2016 1:44 AM    Report this comment

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