My nutritionist says I should be eating gluten-free.  Right at this moment, this sounds scarier than having brain cancer.

I don’t mean to sound flippant in any way.  Brain cancer is serious stuff.  But eating “gluten-free” has also always sounded like a big mystery to my little mind.  It means I cannot eat any wheat.  It also means I should not eat many (any?) pre-packaged foods anymore either, which actually dovetails quite nicely with my new healing-cancer eating routine.

But I need to explore exactly why I need to be gluten-free.  Why do I need to do it now?  What does it mean, exactly, for me?  There is some connection between being gluten-free and having brain cancer. What is it?

I have been hypo (low) thyroid for more than 12 years – since before Hannah was born.  I just recently found out that my hypothyroidism is caused by Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease – like my dad’s rheumatoid arthritis or my aunts’ cases of juvenile diabetes.

This means that my autoimmune system creates antibodies that attack and damage my thyroid gland. Doctors don’t really know all of the “whys” of Hashimoto’s – it might be caused by a bacteria or a virus or a genetic flaw.  The bottom line is that my body is attacking itself and so doesn’t/can’t produce as much TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) as it should.  This slows down my metabolism and can make me feel fatigued, or cold, or chronically tired, or give me any number of other “hypothyroid symptoms.”

Until very recently, I didn’t know my hypothyroidism was caused by an autoimmune disease.  But now that I have a brain tumor, apparently understanding my hypothyroidism has become more important – a LOT more important.

Why?  Because Hashimoto’s Disease causes something called “leaky gut syndrome.”  Apparently, “leaky gut syndrome” means a person’s intestinal lining allows certain proteins to sneak out of the digestive tract and go into the blood stream – places they are not supposed to be.  This causes the person’s immune system to attack itself.  In the case of Hashimoto’s Disease, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing it to produce less TSH than it should.

So how, exactly, is my Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis related to my brain cancer?

Well, that’s the $100,000 question.  I am no expert on this – in fact, I am the absolute opposite of an expert right now.  I am an utter newbie.  So I’ve spent the last several days at the computer trying to gather a little information on the subject.  As you well know, doing this on the Internet is fraught with peril.  But hey, in the last couple of months, peril has become my middle name!  Bring it on!

As far as I can tell, “leaky gut syndrome” (where proteins seep out of the digestive tract and into the blood stream, causing the body to attack itself in an autoimmune response), is somehow related to the “blood-brain barrier” that protects the brain.  But what, exactly, is the connection?

Apparently, both the intestinal lining of the gut and the blood-brain barrier are protective lines of defense for the body.  When the intestinal lining becomes “leaky” then autoimmune disease symptoms can appear – in my case, my immune system will start attacking my thyroid gland and I’ll start having Hashimoto’s Disease symptoms.  For other people, symptoms might be for multiple sclerosis or diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis or other autoimmune diseases.

Like the intestinal lining, the “blood-brain barrier” (BBB) is a physical barrier that protects the brain.  Apparently, the BBB is like a safety net that normally prevents harmful substances from getting to the brain and damaging it.  The BBB does this by having “tight junctions,” that capture the offending intruders and keep them away from important areas of the brain.

When the blood-brain barrier breaks down, as is the case in some brain cancers and brain infections or when tiny ruptures to blood vessels occur, some substances that are normally kept out of the brain gain entry and cause problems for the brain.  Brain facts.org.  Other times, scientists want to “open up” the BBB so that medicines can pass through the barrier to reach brain tumors and treat them more effectively.

So…What does this mean for me and my brain cancer?

Real truth?  I don’t know yet.

I believe it means that nutrition is going to be a very important factor in my healing since being gluten-free – or not being gluten-free – can cause my body to attack itself.  Or not.  This appears to be true at both the intestinal lining and blood-brain barrier levels.

Clearly, there is a lot I need to learn as I move forward.

If any of you know any good (scientific-based) books on why it is important to be gluten-free, or any really good gluten-free cookbooks – I would love to have your recommendations!

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Amy Peck Murphy
Amy Peck Murphy
4 years ago

Only one read-through of “Wheat Belly” sold me, completely. You won’t be sorry, and it will become infinitely easier as you start to notice how VERY much better you feel! Inflammation, as you now know, is a cancer cohort, enabler and “fellow traveler” — our typical diet fuels it on a daily basis. Your nutritional knowledge will grow by leaps and bounds. I, too, ate far too much sugar over my lifetime — craved it and didn’t deny myself. I firmly believe, in retrospect, that my body was suffering for it. Many regrets, so now I can only act on what I’ve learned — as I’ve no doubt you will, and (clearly) already are!

Linda Childs
Linda Childs
4 years ago

Dear Fran,
I have always had high regard for your writing. Since learning of your brain cancer dx. I have been reading backwards through your blogs.
This one jumped out at me for a number of reasons. I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis many years ago. Only recently (through my own research and experimentation, not because the medical establishment gave it much credence…), I learned that my life-long anemia might be related, as well as my body’s sensitivity to wheat, Eating a vegetarian diet for almost 30 years, naturally led to the inclusion of a lot of pasta, bagels, and carbohydrate “fillers”. In addition to reintroducing red meat into my diet a decade ago. as Karen did: four years back, I decided to eliminate gluten..
I can report back from the field that it has been essentially painless – there are so many gluten-free alternatives. I feel MUCH better – although gluten-free pizza crust is an oxymoron!
Reading Wheat Belly recently (there is also a book called Wheat Brain…) I understand retrospectively many of the reasons why wheat has become toxic to so many. The Wheat Belly Cookbook has some really good recipes and substitution suggestions.
In addition, a couple months ago, I heard Dr. Zachary Bush speak about Leaky Gut Syndrome and its relevance to all of the above; You might want to investigate his development of RESTORE for gut health. It is available at Rebecca’s.
Sending you a basket full of healing intentions,

Karen Greene
Karen Greene
4 years ago

I’ve had to do the super strict gluten free diet for the past four years now – I’ll get physically sick for days if I have just a crumb of gluten. You can totally do this. You will miss out on some favorites. You will learn to lower your expectations on what bread and crackers are. But it is do-able. I’ll send a list of cookbooks and brands of decent pasta and whatnot – I just need to go look in the cabinets. And you can make many recipes just substituting Bob’s Red Mill gluten free flour and Xantham Gum. Yummy chocolate chip cookies will be in your future.

Nicole Clarke
Nicole Clarke
4 years ago


Nicole Clarke
Nicole Clarke
4 years ago

Hi Fran – You may find this link helpful: http://drhyman.com/blog/2011/03/17/gluten-what-you-dont-know-might-kill-you/. I’m pretty sure his book, The Blood Sugar Solution, also had a good discussion about gluten and its ramifications.

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