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Gluten: A Cause of Brain Fog

What We Know (And Don't Know) About Cognitive Problems from Gluten Ingestion

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Updated June 17, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Gluten: A Cause of Brain Fog
Getty Images/Henrik Sorensen

Most people focus on the digestive symptoms of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and with good reason: the diarrhea, constipation, cramping and abdominal pain that can accompany accidental gluten ingestion are pretty unpleasant.

But there's another symptom that can be just as debilitating (or almost): brain fog.

There's no official medical definition of brain fog, but you know it when you have it. People with brain fog often feel tired, even though they just got out of bed. They might fumble in conversations or suffer from writer's block. Their thoughts seem to come slower than they would normally, and their creativity is sorely taxed.

Completing tasks -- even simple tasks -- can represent a challenge, and they might struggle in employment or in personal situations due to their brain fog, if it's bad enough. In severe cases, someone with brain fog can even get lost on the way home from the store.

Brain fog is recognized as a symptom of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. However, people with celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, also report problems with brain fog, as do people with gluten sensitivity.

Brain Fog Symptoms Include Forgetfulness, Difficulty Concentrating

You may not find brain fog on the short list of common celiac symptoms, even though many people with celiac report it. Some newly-diagnosed celiacs have told me they suffered from brain fog for years, although they didn't realize it until they started to eat gluten-free.

The problem appears even more common in those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity: Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Celiac Research, tells me brain fog affects about one-third of his gluten sensitivity patients.

In those of us who have been diagnosed for a while, brain fog seems to stem directly from gluten ingestion, and it usually dissipates as the other effects of a glutening wear off. New celiacs -- who may make more mistakes on the gluten-free diet -- probably report it more frequently than multi-year veterans, although it can happen to anyone.

Brain fog is a condition that's tricky to quantify, although my guess is you know when your brain isn't functioning at its best. I get noticeable brain fog if I'm glutened moderately or severely, which fortunately doesn't happen very frequently these days.

  • Specific signs of brain fog can include:
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Problems with attentiveness
  • Lapses in short-term memory
  • Difficulty finding the right words while speaking or writing
  • Forgetfulness
  • Temporary loss in mental acuity and creativity
  • Confusion or disorientation

Symptoms of brain fog can appear together or separately, but often overlap. For example, I have trouble writing when I have brain fog since I can't concentrate well. I'm far less creative and can't keep my train of thought going.

Little Research Available on Brain Fog

You won't find much written by medical professionals about brain fog in celiac disease, even though it can have an impact on your quality of life, especially when you're first diagnosed.

In some cases, your fuzzy-headedness may be related to the fatigue and sleep problems that can occur with celiac; after all, if you're exhausted but can't get a good night's sleep, you're unlikely to function at your best level mentally or physically. It may also be related to nutritional deficiencies; several common deficiencies for new celiacs involve vitamins related to brain function.

There's some evidence that celiac disease may be linked to long-term cognitive decline, but it's not clear whether that possible risk is related to the short-term mental problems you might experience when you accidentally ingest gluten.

Remedy for Brain Fog: Stay Gluten-Free

So what can you do to sharpen your thinking? With celiac disease and brain fog, your best bet is to stay strictly gluten-free, without cheating on the diet.

Most newly diagnosed celiacs will experience relief from their brain fog symptoms pretty quickly, and find that their fuzzy head stays away unless they accidentally ingest gluten.

If you accidentally get into some gluten, you may feel fuzzy-headed for a day or two. Although I've seen various recommendations for supplements that supposedly can help, I honestly think your best bet is to get plenty of rest, dial back your activities if you possibly can and simply wait for the brain fog to pass. In my case, it seems to go away within a day or two.

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