Anxiety and depression plague millions of Americans. If you are one of these unhappy sufferers, the root cause of your mood difficulties may be the proteins found in wheat, rye and barley:1 Research shows gluten may cause your body to attack its own brain and nerve cells.
While a sensitivity to gluten has traditionally been considered a digestive complication, increasingly this problematic nutrient has been found to be connected to a shockingly diverse collection of autoimmune issues. According to Vikki Petersen, author of The Gluten Effect, “After the digestive tract, the most commonly affected system to be affected by gluten is the nervous system.”
Paths To Depression
According to Dr. Petersen, a variety of mechanisms allow gluten to make you depressed. The first is linked to the fact that if you’re sensitive to gluten, your body’s immune cells may attack the protein gliadin (found in gluten) and then start attacking similar proteins in nerve cells. In this scenario, the body may confuse its own proteins with gliadin and commence tearing them apart, leading to harmful inflammation in the brain and nervous system.
The resulting reaction can cause a wide range of symptoms. In my own case, brain inflammation from gluten derailed my memory and led to a burgeoning case of dementia that retreated only when I stopped eating foods containing gluten. But Dr. Petersen notes that this type of inflammation may frequently lead to depression.
And even though many medical people believe that sensitivity to gluten means you suffer from digestive complaints like diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, almost nine of 10 people with nervous system inflammation from gluten do not have these digestive complications.
As Dr. Petersen observes in her book, “One good study evaluated 16 newly diagnosed gluten-sensitive people and performed assessments to determine if depression was present. Compared to normal individuals, the patients with gluten sensitivity scored much higher for having depression… The depression was unrelated to abdominal complaints or other symptoms.”
Another study, this one of teenagers with celiac (a gluten autoimmune reaction), found that “the majority of adolescents with celiac disease had depressive and behavioral symptoms…”2
Dr. Petersen notes that folks with celiac display characteristic changes in the way their brains function. For instance, research shows that gluten can interfere with blood flow to the brain. In one study, Dr. Petersen says, scientists found that 73 percent of patients with untreated celiac had restricted blood flow to the brain. But in a group of patients who were on a gluten-free diet (which is the only treatment that can control celiac), only 7 percent had abnormal blood flow.
A gluten reaction can also deprive the body of the amino acid tryptophan. “Tryptophan is a protein in the brain responsible for a feeling of well-being and relaxation,” says Dr. Petersen.
In the study of teenagers with celiac, the researchers found that kids with celiac who were still consuming gluten had less tryptophan in their bodies than kids on a gluten-free diet. 3 These scientists observed that “…impaired availability of tryptophan may play a role in vulnerability to depressive and behavioral disorders… among adolescents with untreated celiac disease.”
When you eat foods containing gluten — items like bread, pasta, pizza, cookies, donuts and crackers — you may unknowingly set in motion physiological disruptions that seem apparently unrelated to digestion. But we’re beginning to understand that almost every organ in the body, including the brain, may be impaired by a response to gluten.