Gluten and Your Mental Health
A common way of thinking of gluten-related disorders – whether celiac disease or gluten sensitivity – is that the main symptoms are related to the digestive system – the intestines, the stomach, even the mouth. Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease can affect other parts of your body as well, including your brain.
There are two main ways gluten can affect your brain and mental well-being:
- In people with gluten-related disorders, gluten can cause inflammation. This inflammation can affect any part of your body, including your brain, and can show up as psychiatric or behavioral issues, mood disorders, or “foggy brain” or cognitive and memory issues.
- Some people experience psychological effects, including stress and difficult emotions, that are not directly related to the physical effects of gluten in the body. Dealing with an autoimmune disease or having to make major dietary and daily habit changes when going gluten-free can be challenging.
Let’s look into these two effects in a little more detail.
Physiological and Neurological Effects of Gluten
Research around gluten’s effect on the brain is limited. However, research does exist suggesting potential connections to celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. In one study on neurological effects of celiac disease, researchers observed that 42% of patients experienced frequent headaches, 24% reported gait instability, and 12% had persistent sensory symptoms.
A later report reiterated these findings and found that the patients also had abnormal brain imaging.
Connections have been reported between gluten and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depressive and mood disorders, and schizophrenia. An article in Frontiers in Psychiatry explored nutrition as a treatment for anxiety disorders and lists gluten as one of the main dietary components to potentially eliminate (along with artificial sweeteners). The researchers noted that people with anxiety may have an increased sensitivity to gluten and point to a study where a gluten-free diet helped to decrease anxiety – but not depression – in celiac patients.
One review of the literature on a link between gluten and depression showed that a gluten-free diet did improve mental health in patients with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. The improvements were dependent on patients sticking with the diet.
While going on a gluten-free diet is used for celiac patients, primarily to stop the damage to the intestinal lining, other symptoms that might not be commonly thought of as related to gluten could go away. A gluten-free diet is not a substitute for addressing mental health issues through traditional means of therapy or medication. However, if you are experiencing mental health issues, examining your diet could be an appropriate consideration to bring up when with your healthcare provider. If you do not have a celiac disease or gluten sensitivity diagnosis, do not change your diet before getting properly examined and tested.
In terms of ADHD, one study showed that out of 67 patients with ADHD, 10 had celiac disease.
Once on a gluten-free diet, they experienced significant improvements in behavior and their ability to function. This doesn’t mean that if you or your child are showing symptoms of ADHD, or are diagnosed with ADHD, that a gluten-free diet is the next step to take. Speak with your doctor or pediatrician about a possible connection between gluten and ADHD. The first step may be looking into testing for celiac disease if that diagnosis has not already been considered.
A review of the literature on the connection between gluten and schizophrenia hypothesized that a gluten-free diet could improve symptoms in individuals with schizophrenia. According to the report, researchers observed that people “with a long-standing diagnosis of schizophrenia as well as those with recent-onset psychosis share some of the immunologic features of celiac disease.”
How Gluten-Related Disorders Can Affect Quality of Life
Another way gluten-related disorders may have a psychological effect is by compromising quality of life until an accurate diagnosis and diet change is made. Studies have shown that people with autoimmune and other chronic diseases, particularly if misdiagnosed or not properly treated, may experience stress that can take a toll on their mental well-being.
One study looked at people with chronic health issues and the negative effects on their health-related quality of life (HRQoL). The study found that patients with chronic conditions were more likely to have other chronic diseases and experience psychological issues such as depression, insomnia, and cognitive impairment. The study identified the ways to address these negative effects: through physical, psychological, and even spiritual intervention and support.
Getting a proper diagnosis can alleviate the stress you felt not knowing what was wrong. Keep in mind that you might experience additional psychological effects related to the stress of changing your diet or learning to be vigilant about avoiding gluten. At first, adapting to a new way of eating and living can be challenging.
Over time, as you learn more about living gluten-free, the stress you might be feeling should lessen. Building your healthcare team can provide the support you need to get diagnosed and transition to a gluten-free way of life. Seeing a registered dietitian can help make going gluten-free more manageable. In some cases, meeting with a GI psychologist could help address the emotional toll of being unwell. You are not alone in your healthcare journey.
The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Consult your healthcare team when considering this information.
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