SPECIAL REPORT: Gluten Causes Symptoms Because It Damages Nerves, Gluten Sensitivity Specialist Says

by Melissa Diane Smith

Ever wonder how gluten can cause such a wide array of symptoms in so many different people? Dr. Rodney Ford, a doctor from Christchurch, New Zealand who is known as “Doctor Gluten,” just may have the answer – that gluten causes symptoms, in both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, by directly and indirectly injuring nerve networks that control various organs and systems in the body.

Celiac disease is considered a gastrointestinal disease whose symptoms are due to damage or malabsorption in the gut. But gluten can provoke significant ill health other than celiac disease and symptoms “outside” the gut, such as the skin condition eczema and the nervous system disorder ataxia. The way gluten does its damage and leads to many different symptoms is because it interferes with the body’s neural networks, proposes Dr. Ford, a pediatric and allergy specialist with more than twenty-five years of experience treating people with gluten-related illness. His article “The Gluten Syndrome: A Neurological Disease” that explains this theory recently appeared in an early e-edition of Medical Hypothesis. He wrote:

Evidence points to the nervous system as the prime site of gluten damage. This theory is attractive because it gives a unifying answer that explains the following conundrums: the mechanism of the non-gut symptoms of celiac disease; the behaviour disturbances of gluten reactions; the psychiatric and personality disorders; the neurological symptoms; the autonomic system disturbances; why such small amounts of gluten can cause such major reactions by the amplification effect of the nervous system (not dependent on any gut damage); and why gluten can create such a diverse range of symptoms, because any agent that causes widespread neurological harm (think of multiple sclerosis and Syphilis) can generate almost any array of symptoms.

Also, it can explain why celiac patients with extensive gut damage can be asymptomatic. The histological gut damage in celiac disease is not mediated through this neurologic system. It is caused by local toxicity to the bowel in susceptible people. If these people are not highly sensitized to gluten, then they may not experience any symptoms mediated through neural networks.

The regulation of the cardiovascular system, gut, bladder, uterus, and glands (pancreas, gall bladder, sweat and saliva) all depends on the proper functioning of the network of nerves in the autonomic nervous system. If gluten directly and indirectly injures some of these nervous networks, as Dr. Ford has proposed, it becomes apparent how many different organs could be affected.

Also, Dr. Ford pointed out that if gluten becomes the focus of interest rather than mucosal damage in the gut (which is the current focus), more attention will be taken of gluten antibody responses, especially the IgG-gliadin antibody level.


Ford RPK. The gluten syndrome: A neurological disease. Medical Hypothesis (2009), doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2009.03.037. Read abstract

Melissa’s Comments:

The idea that gluten harms nerves in gluten-sensitive people and creates a unique syndrome for each person is a breakthrough in thinking. Frankly, from my point of view, it explains a lot more about gluten-related illness than the previous idea that gluten–related symptoms were always due to damage in the gut. I hope the publication of Dr. Ford’s article fuels new research to further investigate whether gluten sensitivity is indeed a neurological condition. If proven true with additional research, it will add a whole new dimension to our understanding of gluten sensitivity.

© Copyright 2009 Melissa Diane Smith

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