There is nothing worse than too many grains and too little fats in the diet when it comes to brain health
In January, I decided to try a new diet. My energy levels had been on the lower side for some time, and my mind felt sluggish. I needed to do something, but my annual health check-up had found no underlying illness, thyroid fluctuation, or vitamin D deficiency.
There was nothing there to explain my consistent state of brain fog and tiredness. I joked with my friends that I had premature Alzheimer’s disease. I am a hands-on mother of two boys and a health columnist and consultant with a decent (though hardly hectic) social life. Was this fatigue just a result of the normal demands of my life? But I eat mostly healthy food, drink enough water, take multi-vitamins, barely drink alcohol, work out five times a week, do yoga twice a week, and get about 7 hours of sleep on most nights.
I felt I deserved a more energetic body, and a livelier brain for all that effort. I searched the Internet, and that’s where I first came across the wheat-elimination diet. As the phrase suggests, this is a diet free of all wheat-containing foods—no biscuits, cakes, breads, pastas, rotis or puris. Wheat is also found in a range of processed foods and sauces like ice creams, cake mixes, soy sauce and batter-fried foods and stabilizers that are often found in store-bought masalas.
The diet sounded really hard. But the literature was intriguing. David Perlmutter’s book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs And Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers, had been published recently and I devoured it. In a nutshell, Dr Perlmutter, a neurologist and president of the Perlmutter Health Center in Florida, US, writes that the brain is exquisitely sensitive to the foods we eat and there is nothing worse than too many grains and too little fats in your diet when it comes to brain health. While there is a lot more to his book, he is particularly emphatic on the downside of eating wheat and how damaging it can be for the brain.
The logic for going after wheat is that in many people the body often reacts unfavourably to gluten, a wheat protein that makes dough sticky and breads fluffy, or other wheat proteins. An extreme reaction to gluten results in an autoimmune disease called celiac disease, which occurs in one out of 200 people in the US. In this disease the body’s immune system attacks the small intestines and is the severest reaction one can have to gluten.
But you don’t have to have celiac disease to be gluten-sensitive, and gluten-sensitivity doesn’t have to involve the small intestine. It can express itself on the skin, it can cause mouth ulcers and affect the brain. The theory goes that gluten interferes with the breakdown and absorption of nutrients like iron in the gut. The stuff left behind in the intestines leads to a reaction where the immune system sends out killer cells and inflammatory chemicals that compromise the integrity of the intestinal walls, making the gut leaky. Once the gut has been rendered leaky, the body’s immune system mounts a response to the other proteins coming out of the gut, making other food sensitivities likely in the future because proteins from other food particles cross the intestinal barrier and enter the bloodstream. This syndrome is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and a review of the literature published this year in the Journal Of The American College of Nutrition found that NCGS involves a constellation of symptoms, including but not limited to the ones I had. The authors, A. Carroccio and colleagues from the University Hospital of Palermo, Italy, wrote that more research was needed to find a reliable diagnostic test for NCGS.
I then spoke to Craig McClain, chief of research affairs, division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition, University of Louisville School of Medicine, US. Agreeing with the review’s findings, he said that while the diagnosis of celiac disease was made on relatively objective criteria (blood tests and small bowel biopsies) in the US, the diagnosis of NCGS was made simply by seeing if symptoms improve when gluten is removed from the diet, and if symptoms reappear when gluten is reintroduced. He added: “NCGS is made up of a constellation of symptoms, including abdominal pain, foggy thinking, fatigue, diarrhoea, depression, etc. More and more people are being diagnosed with NCGS in the US."
I gave up all the wheat-containing foods that were a part of my life and replaced them with bajra (pearl millet), jowar (sorghum) and red rice. In two-three weeks, I started noticing a change. I had more energy and was able to stay focused for longer. I could get through the day without feeling washed out. My thoughts were clearer. I felt motivated, stuck with the diet and a few months later, I noticed that my premenstrual syndrome symptoms were reduced and I was less bloated generally. My gym workouts were getting more strenuous and I had the energy to complete them and get on with the rest of my day without feeling burnt out. I was happier. I was even beginning to enjoy my jowar and bajra rotis. When I did have a slice of my favourite chocolate cake, I found that I didn’t feel so good the next day—I was lethargic and moody.
It looked like I had NCGS. Nisha Dhar Kapoor, consultant, gastroenterology, at the Columbia Asia hospital in Gurgaon, Haryana, told me she had no experience of non-gastric symptoms of the kind I had. But she found in her practice that the number of patients with NCGS, complaining of symptoms like diarrhoea and bloating, was on the rise. “I’m not sure why, but we find that many patients who come in with symptoms of bloating and diarrhoea but don’t have celiac disease seem to get better when put on a wheat-free diet. We see the same thing in patients with unexplained iron-deficient anaemia."
I had suffered from mild anaemia for years and was on supplemental iron on and off. But I hadn’t given it much thought since it’s quite common among Indian women. After four months on the wheat-free diet, I checked my haemoglobin, and it was at a robust 13. This is without taking any iron supplements.
I have been living a wheat-free life for six months now and I don’t see myself going back to it anytime soon.
Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.