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What’s the Link Between Gluten and Mental Health?

by Grace

Gluten-free diets are increasingly popular. In 2017, an article in Forbes stated that the number of Americans who were no longer eating wheat, rye, and barley grains had tripled since 2009. More recently, a 2022 survey by the group Civic Science found that the gluten-free lifestyle is hot among Gen Z consumers, suggesting the trend isn’t going away any time soon.

Those who adopt a gluten-free lifestyle often cite the physical health benefits, such as more energy, fewer digestive issues, weight loss, and lower inflammation. For some people, those with celiac disease especially, eliminating gluten is essential. Gluten can trigger an immune response that attacks and damages the small intestine. For others, digestive discomfort from a sensitivity to gluten (or another side effect) is reason enough to limit its consumption or avoid it altogether.

But what about gluten and mental health? Is there a link? And if there is a link, is there evidence to suggest that eliminating gluten from your diet can relieve symptoms like anxiety?

Gluten May Lower Serotonin Levels 

Research cited by the Celiac Disease Foundation in 2014 found that wheat, when administered to rats, decreased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the rats’ brains. Wheat reportedly achieved this effect by limiting the availability of tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in many protein-based foods and the sole precursor to serotonin. That is worth noting because serotonin—or low levels of it—has long been associated with depression, until only very recently when new research has called that assumption into question. 

Even so, while the mechanisms by which serotonin acts to regulate mood may seem less clear today, the neurotransmitter is still understood to play an important “feel-good” role, influencing mood and happiness. In this sense, gluten’s impact on serotonin may still point to a link with depression.

The Mental Health Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet 

Another study cited by the Celiac Disease Foundation, this one involving humans, set out to explore the mental health effects of a gluten-free diet. The study followed 22 people on a gluten-free diet and assessed their mental state using a questionnaire known as the “State Trait Personality Inventory (STPI).” After study participants had been gluten-free for three days, they were then randomly assigned one of three different diets. 

What the researchers found was that each of the diets impacted STPI scores, and that the STPI scores were higher with the gluten-free diet. That led the researchers to conclude that “gluten may cause depression in subjects with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.”

As further vindication of the mood effects of a gluten-free diet, a 2018 study in the journal Nutrients recommended a gluten-free diet for individuals who have co-occurring mood disorders and gluten-related disorders. (In addition to celiac disease, these disorders comprise non-celiac gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, gluten ataxia, and dermatitis herpetiformis.) In this case, researchers were able to follow a much larger pool of test subjects by conducting a systematic review of three randomized-controlled trials and 10 longitudinal studies (comprising 1139 participants). 

What the researchers found was that a gluten-free diet “significantly improved” depressive symptoms and that there was indeed a link between mood disorders and gluten intake in those with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders. These results warranted further study of the mood effects of gluten in those without gluten-related disorders, the researchers concluded.

Like depression, anxiety can also be a co-occurring symptom for those with gluten-related disorders, particularly celiac disease. So far studies have presented conflicting evidence as to whether going gluten-free alleviates anxiety.

The Connection Between Gluten and Alcohol Consumption

Gluten is also in many alcoholic beverages, from beer to hard liquors like vodka, bourbon, gin, and whiskey. Someone who drinks a lot or who has an alcohol problem may be consuming higher amounts of gluten. That in turn may aggravate mood and other health symptoms related to heavy drinking— maybe especially if the person has a sensitivity to gluten or a gluten-related disorder.

In short, there is an indisputable link between gluten and mental health, one worth exploring through further research.

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