Researchers from around the world have demonstrated a link between having non-celiac gluten sensitivity and the development of depression. Until very recently, depression and other mood disorders were thought of as entirely psychological manifestation. Experiments using the BCG vaccine as an inflammatory stimulant in rats were able to show a change in behavior in the rats, who reacted by becoming anxious. An inflammatory response by the immune system, then, is known to have psychiatric side-effects.
The Connection Between Food and Behavior
Having an immune response that is hypersensitive to certain foods has been known to act on the brain and affect behavior. In 1950, Bender et al described an association between gluten and schizophrenia. Twenty years after this association was discovered, another physician noted that when his patients with celiac disease commenced a gluten-free diet, this was often followed by an improvement in their mood. In 1998, a further study comparing celiac patients with healthy controls found that a third of celiac patients had depression.
Influenza viruses and other viral infections affect the permeability of the intestines, leading to more pathogenic bacteria in the gut, impacting the central nervous system and sending the person’s mood plummeting. This is thought to be the mechanism by which gluten sensitivity results in depression. The gluten sensitive person’s intestine becomes inflamed and permeable. Some cases of gluten sensitivity, however, present themselves as a purely psychiatric disorder with no physical symptoms at all.
Vitamin Deficiencies and Celiac Missed as a Cause of Depression
A 24 year old man was diagnosed by a psychiatrist with ADHD, depression and an anxiety disorder and prescribed the anti-depressant Zoloft for depression, Valium for anxiety and Adderall for ADHD. Since Adderall is a stimulant medication, he asked his doctor for a sedative in order to help him sleep. The doctor, Mr Greenblatt, M.D, gave him some blood tests instead and discovered that he was deficient in zinc and vitamin B12, despite having a diet that included meat.
Further testing revealed antibodies to gliadin, a protein in wheat that is a biomarker for celiac disease. To confirm the diagnosis, a biopsy was carried out that was positive for the disease. The patient’s physiatrist had never ordered any medical tests or blood panels before making the three diagnoses and prescribing multiple medication.
Two years after the discovery that he had celiac disease, after being put on a gluten-free diet, the patient had no symptoms of anxiety, depression or hyperactivity. He had no need to take any of the medications and could lead a happy and healthy life.
Although rare, there have been a handful of cases of undiagnosed gluten sensitivity causing psychosis. A previously healthy 12 year old girl developed a fever and became irritable. She had problems concentrating as well as daily headaches. After a month, the headache worsened and became severe and she experienced insomnia and began spontaneous bouts of crying without a cause and her grades at school began to slip. Eventually she was diagnosed with Conversion Disorder, a collection of neurological symptoms that are thought to be manifestations of psychological distress.
She was given Benzodiazepine to calm her. Two months later, her mental state worsened and she began having hallucinations – people who were jumping out of her television set and acting in a menacing manner. In addition, she had GI symptoms.
After being admitted to a psychiatric unit, tests were carried out to make sure there wasn’t a physical cause. All were normal, except for her EEG that showed slow brain waves and blood tests showing the presence of anti-thyroglobulin. Due to evidence of autoimmunity, she was given steroid treatment and did improve enough to be discharged. Over the next year, she continued to experience depression and paranoid behavior that progressed into suicidal thinking and she was given an anti-psychotic drug that did not help and she lost a dramatic amount of weight. A nutritionist recommended a gluten-free diet. Once a permanent cessation of gluten products occurred, all her physical and emotional symptoms disappeared. The importance of considering a dietary cause in psychological cases should not be overlooked.
Recognizing Symptoms of Celiac and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
The symptoms of celiac disease are:
- Abdominal pain and bloating
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
Half of all adult celiac disease patients also have:
- Headaches and fatigue
- Heartburn and acid reflux
- Joint pain or loss of bone density
- Mouth ulcers
- Nervous system involvement, including damage to nerves and cognitive function.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has many of the same symptoms as celiac disease but the person won’t test positive for celiac.
The relationship between gluten sensitivities and allergies and the onset of psychiatric illnesses is just beginning to be untapped.
NY Allergy & Sinus Centers have expert food allergy specialists who can help you if you or a loved one suspect you have a gluten allergy. Just call or use the online booking request to arrange your personal consultation.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity Frequently Asked Questions
Can Gluten Sensitivity Cause Skin Reactions?
Gluten intolerance can cause skin reactions such as psoriasis and chronic urticaria. You should visit an allergist if you experience skin reactions from gluten.
Can Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity Be Treated?
The only treatment for non-celiac gluten sensitivity is avoidance. Removing gluten from your diet will eliminate all of your symptoms.
Can You Become Gluten Intolerant Later in Life?
You can develop gluten intolerance suddenly, depending on genetic factors. Some people have symptoms of this condition earlier in life, while others don't have signs of gluten intolerance until they're older.
How Do I Know If I Have Celiac Disease or a Gluten Intolerance?
Individuals with celiac disease experience inflammation in the small intestine after eating gluten. It is different from gluten sensitivity because gluten will damage the small intestine of an individual with celiac disease. A gluten sensitivity is mild discomfort after consuming gluten.
How Is Gluten Sensitivity Diagnosed?
Currently, there is no test for gluten sensitivity. People with digestive symptoms that suggest celiac disease should see a gastroenterologist to determine their risk for either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Is Gluten Sensitivity A Lifelong Condition?
Some individuals become less sensitive to gluten over time. However, in most cases, gluten sensitivity is a lifelong condition.
Is Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity Different From A Wheat Allergy?
Wheat allergy involves an immune response to the proteins in wheat. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not an immune response to gluten. The biological processes responsible for non-celiac gluten sensitivity remain undefined.
What Are the Symptoms of Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity?
Symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity include bloating, diarrhea, nausea, and headaches. You may also experience abdominal pain, fatigue, and/or depression.
What Is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is not to be confused with gluten sensitivity.