The Food - Brain Connection

How Wheat and Milk Contribute to Brain Fog,
Dementia, Autoimmunity and Chronic Illness

Have you ever felt almost “high” after eating pizza or a grilled cheese sandwich? It may be because these foods can act as opiates within our brain, leading to that “blissed out” feeling that often results in that “tired and toxic” feeling.

It was almost 40 years ago that researchers discovered peptides with opioid activity in partially undigested gluten and alpha-casein (milk protein) and called them “exorphins” – an external compound that acts as an opiate within, or “endorphin”.


Over the following decades, the Italian pediatric gastroenterologist, Alessio Fasano, MD, pioneered the discovery of zonulin, the compound that regulates intestinal permeability.

We now know that gluten and gliadin (gluten’s toxic cousin) trigger the release of zonulin, opening the tight junctions between the cells that line our gut, allowing partially undigested food particles to cross into the blood stream. And that’s where the problems begin.

Once absorbed, these “exorphins” travel to the brain, where they act as “endorphins” or natural opiates. Endorphins can give us a sense of euphoria, but gluten can also trigger an immune reaction that leads to inflammation and over time, neurodegeneration. Exorphins appear to play a role in mood, behavior, autism, schizophrenia and a number of other conditions.


People respond to exposure to wheat, gluten and gliadin on a spectrum, from severe symptoms to transient discomfort.

Celiac disease is a serious, genetic autoimmune reaction to gluten, creating an immunologic response that damages the villi (small fingerlike projections that line the surface of the small intestine) producing malabsorption of key nutrients, diarrhea, anemia and wasting. Celiac disease is diagnosed by specific blood tests. Strict avoidance of all traces of wheat, barley, rye, gluten and gliadin is the only effective treatment.

Different than celiac disease, a true wheat “allergy” triggers the immune system to generate an immediate production of IgE antibodies to bind to gluten, which cause histamine release, hives, swelling or even anaphylactic shock. Obviously, people with a true wheat gluten allergy can no longer eat wheat or gluten.

Food “intolerances” or “sensitivities” can also occur. Rather than an immediate allergic reaction, a delayed IgG antibody response may form several hours or even days later, resulting in diverse symptoms such as indigestion, rash, headache or joint pain, etc. Again, avoidance is the best medicine.

Over time, sensitive individuals may develop more serious inflammatory reactions. New research is linking chronic exposure to gluten in sensitive individuals to systemic disorders including cognitive impairment, hormonal imbalances, osteoporosis and more.  Acta Neurol Belg. 2018 Mar;118(1):21-27.

Just a quick note: When humans first began cultivating wheat as a grain around 10,000 years ago, we consumed ancient varieties that were much lower in gluten and caused fewer issues than the current strains we eat now. Today’s wheat has been specially cultivated for bread-making to increase the levels of gluten to the point that now approximately 50% of the protein in wheat is from gluten! No wonder reactions to wheat are on the rise!

So how do you find out if you’re sensitive to wheat or dairy?

At my initial consult, I test most patient’s blood for IgG and IgE antibodies to an array of 100 common foods.

As we wait for those results, I suggest a 30-day elimination of wheat, barley and rye. Ideally, avoid cow’s milk, cheese and other milk products at the same time.

You may find that you lose several pounds and a variety of annoying symptoms disappear as you get these common allergens out of your diet. Now, it may take weeks for antibody levels to fall and your immune system to reduce its response to these antigens, so please be patient!

While you’re experiencing this new life without allergens, I hope you’ll try this delicious gluten and dairy-free Updated Quinoa Tabouli Salad.

My recipe for this middle-eastern salad substitutes the ancient Incan seed, quinoa, for bulgur wheat. Plus, this tabouli is full of bright green parsley, mint and other phytonutrient-rich herbs that have been shown to reduce appetite, weight gain and balance blood sugar and lipid levels!

Grab a friend and take some time this weekend to pull together this satisfying salad and enjoy it through the week, knowing you’re nurturing your gut-brain connection!

My mission is to feed you healthy recipes and tasty bites of power-packed information. Let me know if you enjoy this recipe and post by liking or commenting below. A santé! (To health)!

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