Gluten and Motor Neurone Disease (ALS)

As many of us know, celebrity scientist Stephen Hawking has suffered from motor neurone disease since the age of 21. Almost all other sufferers of this disease die within about three years, but Hawking continues to survive and is now aged 69. How does he do it?

I recently found an article entitled Stephen Hawking’s Chicken Jalfrezi where he is quoted to say that Indian food suits him because it is mostly gluten free. This reminded me of Dr Hadjivassiliou’s research at the University of Sheffield (UK) into the effects of gluten on the nervous system. Dr Hadjivassiliou has discovered that people with motor neurone disease or ALS – a degenerative condition of the nervous system – are frequently sensitive to gluten. This means that they have high levels of antibodies to gluten, and gluten is producing inflammation in their body. Inflammation is the cause of most degenerative diseases. If Stephen Hawking is following a gluten-free diet, could this explain why his disease has progressed so slowly and why he has outlived all predictions of his early death for almost 50 years?

A billion Chinese eat a virtually gluten-free diet

Most of us in the West have been brought up eating large amounts of gluten. This sets us apart from the rest of the world where rice or maize tend to be the staple carbohydrates. When you think that there are over 1 billion Chinese in the world, most of them eating a virtually gluten-free diet, you have to wonder if this contributes in some way to their population’s success.

In contrast, we in the West frequently start the day with toasted bread, croissants or a wheat-based cereal. Mid-morning comes a wheat snack such as biscuits or cookies, followed by sandwiches for lunch, cake or more biscuits/cookies in the afternoon, and pasta for dinner followed by pastries for dessert. In countries like France and Italy, bread traditionally accompanies almost all meals.

Are we paying a price for consuming all this gluten? How well is the human body adapted to gluten? Why do all so-called detox diets avoid gluten?

People on a detox diet often report feeling lighter and brighter, more clear-headed, more energetic, and needing less sleep. This seems to imply that when we are eating gluten we are walking around feeling heavy, dull-headed, tired and drowsy.

Going back to Stephen Hawking, gluten sensitivity is known to be linked with a number of diseases in addition to MND. Coeliac disease is well known to be caused by gluten. It is a severe form of diarrhoea which occurs when inflammation due to gluten sensitivity damages the intestines. Less well known is the fact that in a 1992 study carried out in Italy, 77 per cent of patients with epilepsy were found to have undiagnosed gluten sensitivity. If started early enough, the researchers found that a gluten-free diet was able to prevent epileptic fits. [1]

There is also increasing evidence that gluten sensitivity can cause mental symptoms. Schizophrenia is a much rarer disease in parts of the world where wheat is not usually eaten. Researchers have found high levels of gluten antibodies in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and have used a gluten-free diet to improve their symptoms too. [2]

The most exciting research to emerge more recently links gluten to autism. Large quantities of partly digested gluten particles have been found in the urine of autistic children. This indicates that the children’s intestines are inflamed and leaky because otherwise gluten particles would not be able to get into the blood circulation. Particles from the fraction of wheat protein known as gliadin have a strongly morphine-like effect [3] and if these particles enter the blood they could account for many of the symptoms associated with childhood autism. Of all the gluten grains, wheat gluten has the highest gliadin content. Visit the University of Sunderland website to find out more about research into gluten and autism.

How long does it take for a gluten-free diet to work? Dr Hadjivassiliou says you can expect to see improvement or stabilization at about two years from the introduction of a gluten-free diet. It takes three to six months for anti-gluten antibodies to disappear from the blood. Nerve tissue affected by gluten may recover very slowly. Personally I feel so much better when I don’t eat gluten that I try to stay off it as much as possible. I need less sleep, feel more alert and can think better when I am gluten-free.

Linda Lazarides

If you are caring for someone with motor neurone disease have you considered studying naturopathy to learn a new approach to understanding this and other diseases?

1. Gobbi G et al: Coeliac disease, epilepsy, and cerebral calcifications. The Italian Working Group on Coeliac Disease and Epilepsy. Lancet 340(8817):439-43, 1992.
2. Hadjivassiliou M et al. Headache and CNS white matter abnormalities associated with gluten sensitivity. Neurol 2001;56:385-388.
3. Huebner FR, Lieberman KW, Rubino RP, Wall JS. Demonstration of high opioid-like activity in isolated peptides from wheat gluten hydrolysates. Peptides 1984 Nov-Dec;5(6):1139-47.

Further information about Dr Hadjivassiliou’s work