As we change the way we view depression and understand the physiological factors which influence it, more people are asking the question – are depression and gluten linked?

In the past, such a suggestion would’ve been ridiculed by many but now it seems much less foolish.

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For years nutritionists have been listening to anecdotal reports from people who have experienced an improvement in mood after removing gluten.  What’s more these people reported how their emotional well-being was throw significantly off balance with the re-introduction of gluten after a period of abstinence. 

I witnessed this firsthand with a 6 year old boy who had been eating bread at a birthday party. He had been on a gluten free diet six months. Within 24 hours he was inconsolable, saying he wanted to die. This was out of character for him and there was no reason at all for him to feel this way.

This kind of experience is not unique

The link between gluten and mental health has been touched upon in the medical literature. There have been links made with schizophrenia, psychosis and autism. A recent study set to investigate whether introducing gluten could create depressive symptoms  in IBS patients. They studied 22 patients who were following a gluten free diet, although they did not have celiac disease. They re-introduced either gluten, whey or a placebo and identified the effect this had on their mood. Gluten was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms.

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For gluten to exert effects on the nervous system, it needs to reach areas outside of the digestive system. This is where zonulin comes in.

Zonulin is a protein that opens the tight junctions in our epithelial wall

It is there to allow nurients to enter the bloodstream. When it is upregulated the ‘holes’ in the wall become too big, resulting in a ‘leaky gut’. 

Gliadin is like the sister protein of gluten 

They occur together and perhaps our focus on gluten has distracted us from the role of gliadin in all this. Gliadin, in wheat, will increase zonulin (and therefore create a leaky gut) in anyone.

Yes, those with and without celiac disease, those with gluten sensitivity and those without.

Even healthy people are susceptible. When the gut is leaky it allows undigested food proteins to cause havoc with other body systems by entering the bloodstream – it also allows gluten to affect the nervous system. The chaos caused by food protein entering the bloodstream can cause inflammation. This in itself can cause depression. 

I should add that altered gut flora and SIBO can also increase zonulin, so there are a number of ways that poor digestive function can affect our mental health.

If you struggle with low mood or depression and have any issues with digestion then it might be worth trying a gluten free diet. The digestive issues don’t have to be severe, they can be simple symptoms like bloating, sluggish or loose bowels, occasional heartburn.

Just be mindful that the re-introduction of gluten can have a strong impact on your mood if you are susceptible. For you depression and gluten might be a very real equation.

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