Gluten and Depression: Does Wheat Impact Mental Health?

Gluten and Depression: Does It Really Impact Your Mental State?

Today, a growing number of people have parted with gluten. They claim a number of reasons, the most common of which is gastrointestinal issues. But a few say that giving up gluten has improved their mental state–lifted the fog if you will. But is this true? Is there a connection between gluten and depression?

Celiac disease is the autoimmune disorder associated with gluten. The disease, which occurs in about 1 percent of the population, causes the body to attack its own small intestine when a person eats gluten. It can cause severe symptoms from stomach pain and weight loss to depression.

Dr. James M. Greenblatt has discussed a patient he had that was on three different medications for ADHD, depression, and anxiety. After testing the patient’s blood work, he found that he was very anemic with significant zinc and B12 deficiencies, all of which were the result of undiagnosed Celiac disease. The disease causes the malabsorption of nutrients because it damages the small intestine. In fact, adolescents with Celiac disease have a 31 percent chance of having depression versus a 7 percent chance in those who don’t have Celiac. The inability to absorb zinc in particular may cause depression.

While there is no cure for Celiac disease, it can be well managed on a gluten-free diet. The diet allows both the physical and mental symptoms of the illness to cure themselves. Although the physical symptoms clear up immediately, it may take longer for the psychological symptoms to clear up because the deficiencies can take a few months to heal themselves. This shows there is a link between gluten and depression.

But it’s not just patients with Celiac disease that are at risk. A study published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that gluten can also cause depression in those with a gluten sensitivity. In the study, those on a gluten-free diet versus a placebo had a detectable and significant change in their mental state. Though researchers aren’t sure why this occurs.

A number of factors could be at play. Gluten may alter cortisol levels in the brain and cortisol levels tend to be higher in those with a poor mental state. Gluten can also impact serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain which gives feelings of happiness.

Much more research needs to be done on the subject, but this is an indication that for those that are sensitive and have some sort of an allergy to gluten, it can impact your mental state. Gluten sensitivities are much more controversial than Celiac disease. It’s harder to diagnose and doctors are much more skeptical of the illness. But for those with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, this means that an improved mental state is not all in their head. There may well be something to the connection between gluten and depression in some individuals.

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Sara Novak
Sara Novak

Sara Novak is an independent journalist who reports on health, science, yoga, and travel. She was a writer for Discovery Communications from 2006-2013 and her work has been featured on Discovery Health, Popular Science, TLC, Animal Planet, What to Expect, TreeHugger, and many more. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. When she's not churning away on her laptop, she can be found atop her yoga mat or walking the beach with her husband, baby boy, and two lovable cocker spaniels.