Gluten Ataxia

If you have sporadic ataxia, there’s a possibility that you could be suffering from gluten ataxia. Sporadic ataxia is ataxia that does not have a genetic or other known cause. More often than not, sporadic ataxia turns out to have a link to gluten intolerance. In this article we’ll define the neurological disorder gluten ataxia, how it’s diagnosed, and how it relates to celiac disease. Fortunately treatment is available: read on to learn more.

What is Gluten Ataxia?

Gluten ataxia is an autoimmune disease that is brought on by ingestion of gluten in people who are genetically predisposed. It is most closely associated with cerebellar ataxia and its most common symptoms are:

  • Inability to control the speed or the power of a physical movement
  • Inability to speak or form words correctly; speech impediments
  • Headaches
  • Poor coordination in physical movements and poor control of muscle movement

There are three general areas of ataxia: cerebellar, sensor and vestibular. The ataxia discussed in this lesson is essentially caused by damage to the cerebellum, thus it is a form of cerebellar ataxia. The cerebellum is the portion of the brain that is in charge of coordination and movement. There are other causes for cerebellar ataxia other than gluten sensitivity; these causes are generally ruled out before gluten sensitivity or celiac disease is identified as the origin. Gluten ataxia is a progressive disease and can cause permanent damage to the cerebellum if it is not treated promptly.

Ataxia is the least easily identifiable version of gluten intolerance. Many people with gluten ataxia do not realize they have a sensitivity to gluten before diagnosis as they do not have any of the typical symptoms. Generally this form of ataxia is diagnosed after all other types of ataxia are ruled out. Then specific tests are done to see if gluten could be at the root of the problem. Ataxia resulting from gluten sensitivity may be diagnosed with the following markers:

  • Antigliadin antibodies
  • IgA deposits against TG2 in the small bowel and at extraintestinal sites

You can read more about testing for gluten intolerance in my gluten intolerance test lesson.

Gluten Ataxia and Celiac Disease

Gluten ataxia is essentially a sister of celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that impacts the intestines, specifically the villi or microvilli. When an individual who is predisposed ingests gluten, an autoimmune reaction occurs and causes damage and swelling to the lining of the small intestine. Over time this causes villous atrophy and makes it difficult for the small intestine to absorb nutrients. With individuals suffering from gluten ataxia, the cause of the problem is the same: gluten. The difference is that the cerebellum is impacted instead of — or in addition to — the intestines. Both of these differ from a wheat allergy where symptoms would most often be more immediate type 1 hypersensitivity symptoms, such as sneezing, hives, itchiness (including itchiness in the throat or on the tongute) and lip or face swelling.

It is still not entirely clear whether the antibodies attack the cerebellum directly or if the impact on the cerebellum is an indirect result of malnutrition from gluten intolerance. The antibodies involved in gluten sensitivities and celiac disease also tend to trigger increased intestinal permeability, where proteins and toxins pass into the bloodstream through the intestinal wall (also known as leaky gut syndrome). This may ultimately lead to an indirect attack on the cerebellum. However, at least one autopsy performed on a deceased individual who had ataxia found gluten antibodies at the site of the cerebellum.

Gluten is found in the following grassy grains: wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and kamut. It may also be found in oats processed alongside gluten-containing grains (which is common in the United States).

Celiac Disease Symptoms

Celiac disease symptoms present themselves in a number of ways, only one of which is gluten ataxia. Other gluten intolerance symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Nutritional absorption disorders including anemia and osteoporosis
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas and/or bloating
  • “Failure to thrive” in infants and children
  • Chronic, extremely itchy rash (Dermatitis Herpetiformis)
  • Distended abdomen

This is just an overview; for more details on the symptoms of celiac disease, consider reading the following lessons in the Gluten Intolerance School:

It can be almost impossible to isolate a single comprehensive checklist of symptoms of celiac disease because there are well over 200 documented symptoms and they can manifest themselves in dramatically different ways in different individuals.

Treatment for Gluten Intolerance

Fortunately there is treatment available. For both celiac disease and ataxia resulting from gluten intolerance, the recommended treatment is the same: a strict gluten-free diet. With individuals suffering from celiac disease, a gluten-free diet can completely eliminate all symptoms if followed for a period of time sufficient to allow the intestines to heal. With gluten ataxia, if detected early enough it is possible to eliminate symptoms as well. In the case of permanent cerebellum damage a gluten-free diet can still be helpful in controlling symptoms and preventing future damage. Understanding more about what is gluten can help people avoid or replace gluten-containing foods in their diet.

For both celiac disease and ataxia triggered by gluten, the gluten-free diet is a necessary life-long prescription.

For ataxia in general, physical therapy and vitamin B12 supplementation are often prescribed, so these would be used in addition to a gluten-free diet to help individuals suffering from gluten ataxia.

Gluten ataxia is a serious condition. Early detection is key to preventing permanent cerebellum damage. If you suspect that you may have gluten ataxia, consult your physician as soon as possible. Together you can work to determine the treatment plan that will best put you on the road to recovery.