Depression and Gluten: Is there a connection?
The million-dollar question...should you go gluten-free if you’re struggling with mental health symptoms? The simple answer... most likely! There have been significant amounts of research showing an association between depression and gluten, along with many other health issues. Why not give it a try?
When you avoid gluten, there are many surprising mood benefits you may experience. Let's hop in and see why!
Gluten Sensitivity Symptoms
Unlike food allergies, where an immediate reaction is visible, symptoms from food sensitivities can show up hours or even days later! This is why it can be challenging for some people to put the two and two together, linking gluten to their health symptoms.
One symptom that may be surprising to many people is how gluten sensitivities may be linked with depressive symptoms.
But that's not all.
Food sensitivities symptoms can also show up as:
Gluten Sensitivity and Depression: Feeling Better After Going Gluten-Free
One study showed how many people who have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) exhibit signs of anxiety and depressive symptoms. Even short‐term exposure to gluten can induce feelings of depression for some individuals.
Even though this study showed that patients' stomach issues didn't significantly improve by going gluten-free, what they did find was that participants reported 'feeling better’ when gluten was eliminated from their diet after just 3 days!
So, even if you don't see any gastrointestinal tract improvements, you may still experience mental health benefits when you go gluten-free.
Even if you don’t see the stomach relief you were hoping for, if you feel better, mood-wise, I’d say that's a win, especially if depressive thoughts are something you are currently struggling with.
Can I Have Small Amounts of Gluten?
"What if I have a small piece of bread? That won't make a difference, will it?". Actually, it can!
One study showed that even 4.375 g/day of gluten made a significant impact on intestinal and extraintestinal symptoms. To put things into perspective, a typical slice of bread contains approximately 5 grams of gluten.
In this study, participants experienced abdominal bloating and pain, foggy mind, depression, and canker sores when they ingested a gluten capsule for 1 week after being gluten free (double-blinded study).
That small amount of gluten in one slice of bread (or even hiding in your sauces) can have major implications for your overall physical and mental health.
Science Behind How Gluten Affects Your Health
Gluten can wreak havoc on your health without even knowing! Up to 13% of the population has a gluten sensitivity (with it being more common in women than men). But honestly, many more people who have a sensitivity may be unaware of it because of the late onset of symptoms and not connecting the dots together.
Gluten Damages Your Protective Barrier
So, how exactly does gluten impact your body? Gluten can damage your gut lining, by increasing intestinal permeability (Hello, leaky gut). This is when the tiny holes in your gut get bigger and bigger. Normally, those tiny holes allow necessary nutrients and minerals from your ingested food to pass into your blood circulation and into your cells.
Increased intestinal permeability, unfortunately, allows bigger food particles to pass through into circulation. Your body's immune response sees these as foreign invaders, causing inflammation in the body.
Eventually, your gut becomes inflamed and interferes with nutrient absorption, leading to nutrient deficiencies, and ultimately contributes to depression since nutrient deficiencies are linked to depression.
Gluten can even cause increased permeability of your brain barrier, allowing particles to cause inflammation and damage your brain.
Gluten Impacts the Brain More Directly
However, other researchers have also hypothesized that gluten can impact the brain in a more direct way. This is why some people who have short exposures to gluten may see depressive symptoms even though their intestines are not damaged. It's not completely understood how gluten leads to depression, but studies do show how gluten has a negative impact.
How do people feel after going gluten-free?
When you avoid gluten, you first give your gut (and brain) a chance to heal. Taking away that stressor can reduce inflammation and even inhibit any direct impact it has on your brain.
People who go gluten-free experience a lighter mood, reduced depression and anxiety, and an overall clearer mind. If you are curious if going gluten-free can help your mood, try avoiding it for one week and take note of how you feel. Then once you start to find alternatives to your normal gluten go-to's, it'll be easier to go gluten-free for the long haul!
Since you've learned there is a connection between gluten sensitivity and depression; you may be thinking, "NOOO, I love my bread! I can't give it up." Don't worry. There are TONS of alternative food options that I promise will hit the spot!
Here are my easy swaps for gluten-containing foods
Cassava tortillas instead of flour
Almond or coconut flour blends for baking
Swapping a sandwich for a lettuce wrap
Trader Joe's quinoa noodles for pasta
Tapioca flour for thickening sauces
Not all Gluten-Free Labeled Products are Healthy!
I also want to point out that even though you should go gluten-free, it doesn't mean you should buy ALL the gluten-free labeled foods and call it a day.
Many gluten-free packaged foods are processed and contain a handful of unhealthy ingredients (loads of added sugar!). Be sure to check the ingredient labels before you put them in the cart.
The safest and most healthy option is to opt for more whole food recipes. If you think about it, many of your sandwich meals can be made into a nutrient-rich salad or lettuce wrap.
Do You Have a Gluten Sensitivity or Something Else?
There could be various reasons for your mood issues, including nutrient deficiencies, gut imbalances, gluten sensitivities (or other food sensitivities), hormonal imbalances, and more. Please reach out to me if you want to find the true root cause of your anxiety, depression, or mood roller coasters.
I'm Jessica Meyers, a functional health expert who can guide you towards optimal health.
I analyze your health history and educate you on your personal functional lab tests, to create diet, supplement & lifestyle recommendations with a personalized plan that's unique to you and your body.
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