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Is Gluten Linked to Mental Health? An Overview for Students Earning a Nutrition Diploma

While “gluten-free” might be known to some as simply a trendy diet within the health community (Borchard, 2016), there may be more merits to a gluten-free diet than many are aware of. In the Western world, wheat products are the primary source of carbohydrates in the general population’s diet (Busby et al., 2018). However, cases of gastrointestinal and even extra-intestinal problems as a result of gluten are on the rise (Busby et al., 2018). Gluten has been shown to affect not just the body but the brain as well (Borchard, 2016), linked to schizophrenia, hyperactivity, autism spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression (Vellinga, 2020). For those with mental health problems or mood-related disorders, eliminating gluten may actually present as a form of treatment strategy (Busby et al., 2018). 

If you’re considering a career as a nutritionist, knowing the possible effects of gluten on our mental health will enhance your ability to successfully coach clients in improving their overall health and wellness. Read on to discover what is known about the link between gluten and mental health. 

Pursuing Your Nutrition Diploma? Here’s Why Gluten Could be Related to Mental Health

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as barley, wheat, and rye (Borchard, 2016). Gluten contains protein fragments called polypeptides, which bind to the brain’s morphine receptors (Borchard, 2016). These morphine receptors, called exorphins, are the same receptor sites that opiate drugs bind to, and thus have an impact on the amount of pleasure that we feel (Borchard, 2016). However, these receptors can affect our brain chemistry and mood due to the withdrawal effect that is experienced (Borchard, 2016). Due to the way it interacts with our brain’s morphine receptors, gluten is one of the only foods that can affect our behaviour (Borchard, 2016). In addition to the effects that gluten has on the brain, those with gluten-related disorders can also experience adverse mental health effects as a result of consuming gluten. 

Gluten has been linked to negative mental health effects

How Gluten Can Affect Those with Gluten-Related Disorders 

For those with celiac disease, consuming gluten-containing products causes gluten to accumulate in the small intestine, which triggers an immune response (Vellinga, 2020). Instead of attacking the undigested gluten, the body mistakenly attacks the small intestine, leading to inflammation and other problems (Vellinga, 2020). For many celiac patients, depression is one of the symptoms of this disease (Ciacci et al., 1998), highlighting the link between gluten and mental health. When the immune system attacks something it deems foreign (gluten in celiac patients), this heightens our nervous system response, which can in turn cause symptoms of anxiety and depression (Borchard, 2016). Due to the damage that celiac disease causes to the intestinal wall, the body’s production of serotonin is also negatively affected, as most serotonin is produced in the gut’s nerve cells located in the intestine (Borchard, 2016). Additionally, since the intestinal wall is responsible for absorbing nutrients, those affected by celiac disease may not be receiving nutrients that support mood, such as Vitamins D, B, and zinc (Borchard, 2016).

Those with gluten-related disorders may also suffer adverse mental health effects from eating gluten

While celiac disease is distinguishable from general gluten sensitivity disorders, those with gluten sensitivity may also experience adverse mental health effects as a result of consuming gluten (Link, 2020). Both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can be difficult to diagnose due to the wide range of symptoms that can occur (Vellinga, 2020). Thus, in some cases, mood disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, or depression may actually be the result of a gluten-related disorder that has gone undiagnosed (Vellinga, 2020). Those pursuing a nutrition diploma will be interested to note that this evidence suggests that in some cases, a gluten-free diet could potentially be an avenue of treatment for those experiencing symptoms of a mood disorder (Vellinga, 2020).

Should Your Clients Consider Eliminating Gluten?

While future research is still needed concerning gluten’s effects on our mental health, the effect that gluten has on the brain, in addition to its effects on the mood of those with gluten-related disorders has promising implications for the efficacy of gluten elimination (Busby et al., 2018). After completing nutritionist college, you may consider recommending that your patients try eliminating gluten from their diet in order to see if their mental health improves as a result (Link, 2020). As gluten sensitivity can be difficult to diagnose, the simplest path forward for some may be to shift to a gluten-free diet and identify whether they notice any changes in their overall wellbeing (Vellinga, 2020). 

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Works Cited:

Borchard, T. (2016, September 1). Gluten, Depression, and Anxiety: The Gut-Brain Link. Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/columns/therese-borchard-sanity-break/gluten-depression-and-anxiety-gut-brain-link/

Busby, E., Bold, J., Fellows, L., & Rostami, K. (2018). Mood Disorders and Gluten: It’s Not All in Your Mind! A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 10(11), 1708. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10111708

Ciacci, C., Iavarone, A., Mazzacca, G., & De Rosa, A. (1998). Depressive symptoms in adult coeliac disease. Scandinavian journal of gastroenterology, 33(3), 247–250. https://doi.org/10.1080/00365529850170801

Link, R. (2020, April 27). Can Gluten Cause Anxiety? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gluten-and-anxiety#gluten-sensitivity

Vellinga, J. (2020, August 10). Can Gluten Cause Mental Health Disorders? Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine. https://www.tcimedicine.com/post/can-gluten-cause-mental-health-disorders