The scary connection between gluten, schizophrenia and depression

Whether you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a rogue breadcrumb in your dinner could give you a long list of physically uncomfortable symptoms: joint pain, headaches, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain.

But the negative effects of gluten go beyond the body….

Gluten infiltrates the brain too, causing neurological symptoms and contributing to major mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, it usually takes years — or even decades — for people who develop neurological or mental health symptoms to realize their problems are tied to gluten. That’s because most people — even doctors — think of gluten-related illness as gastrointestinal.

But despite all the misinformation around gluten’s relationship to brain health, there’s plenty of research (some going back more than half a century!) that proves that gluten is bad for your brain and, consequently, your mental health…

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How gluten grates on your mental health

There are a lot of people who think gluten-related health issues are made up because they “didn’t exist” in years past. But the truth is, there’s scientific evidence connecting gluten to brain-related illnesses that goes back almost 60 years…

A 1966 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that as people in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and the United States began to eat more gluten, more women ended up in mental health institutions due to schizophrenia. The reverse held true too. When gluten consumption declined in these countries, fewer women went to mental health institutions.

More recent studies in 2011 and 2013 linked gluten to schizophrenia as well. In 2011, a study published in Schizophrenia Bulletin found that people with schizophrenia produce more antibodies associated with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

And a study published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry in 2013 had similar findings. Anti-gliadin antibodies (the ones doctors use to diagnose celiac disease) were 2.13 times higher in people with schizophrenia.

There’s a suspicious link between gluten and depression too…

A small 2014 study published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics found that people with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity had higher depression scores after eating a diet that included gluten for just three days.

Depression is also much more common in people with celiac disease. In 1998, a study published in Psychiatric Quarterly reported that roughly 33 percent of celiac disease sufferers have depression. And a 2007 study published Journal of Affective Disorders found that people with celiac disease have an 80 percent higher risk of depression.

It all goes back to the gut-brain connection

When you think about it, the connection between celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and mental health issues makes perfect sense. There’s indisputable evidence demonstrating the connection between our guts and our brains, after all.

In people with celiac disease, for example, it’s proven that gluten throws their bacterial balance out of whack. And there’s plenty of research showing that the bacteria in our microbiome can make or break our mental health.

There’s also the whole “leaky gut” issue to consider. Gluten can damage the gut lining, allowing bacteria and toxins to travel into the bloodstream and cause inflammation in many areas of the body, including the brain.

Plus, there’s evidence that gluten contains compounds that interact with the brain in a unique way….

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A 1979 study found that protein fragments in gluten affect our brains just like the protein fragments in opioids do. They bind to morphine receptors and trigger a pleasure response. That means, just like opioids, gluten has the potential to trigger withdrawal and negative emotions when it’s not in the body.

In fact, researchers from a 1980 study on the connection between wheat and schizophrenia blamed these protein fragments (called exorphins) for their findings that wheat led to a worsening of schizophrenia symptoms. The study’s lead researcher mentioned in the study that wheat is one of only a few foods that can have a potent effect on the central nervous system.

Going gluten-free for physical and mental health

All this confirms what a lot of people who avoid gluten already know — it can make you feel lousy in a multitude of ways, more than many doctors realize. So, always trust your gut (or brain) when it comes to gluten. Avoid it if it causes problems for you.

Of course, if you suspect gluten is an issue for you, you should talk to your doctor. Get tested for celiac disease and wheat allergy. If those tests come back negative, there’s a chance you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Unfortunately, there’s no way to formally diagnose that.

If you do decide to follow a gluten-free diet, make sure you don’t fall prey to a common pitfall — eating lots of processed gluten-free foods.

If you’re eating a processed gluten-free diet, you’re eating sugars, refined rice flours and other processed ingredients that don’t do your body (or brain) any favors. Studies also show that processed junk foods make you more prone to depression and other mental health issues.

Instead of pre-packaged gluten-free substitutes, eat lots of vegetables, fruits, grass-fed dairy, organic or grass-fed meat, and healthy gluten-free grains, like:

  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Certified gluten-free oats
  • Sorghum
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Amaranth
  • Teff

Sources:

  1. Gluten, Depression, and Anxiety: The Gut-Brain Link — PsychCentral
  2. Wheat “Consumption” and Hospital Admissions for Schizophrenia During World War II: A Preliminary ReportThe American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
  3. Elevated gliadin antibody levels in individuals with schizophreniaThe World Journal of Biological Psychiatry
  4. Prevalence of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in the United States clinical antipsychotic trials of intervention effectiveness study populationSchizophrenia Bulletin
  5. Hypothesis: genes and neuroactive peptides from food as cause of schizophreniaAdvances in Biochemical Psychopharmacology
  6. Coeliac disease and risk of mood disorders — A general population-based cohort studyJournal of Affective Disorders
  7. Randomised clinical trial: gluten may cause depression in subjects with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity – an exploratory clinical studyAlimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics
  8. Non-Celiac Gluten/Wheat Sensitivity — Celiac Disease Foundation

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Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.