Gluten-free and Better Mood

June 14, 2015 Updated: June 14, 2015

Gluten-free foods have been on the market for since the start of the millennium, and people are becoming more and more aware of the symptoms of gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance, and celiac disease. Most of us associate gluten-related symptoms with physical discomfort, such as bloat, stomach upset, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. We often are less aware that problems with gluten can be associated with emotional discomfort, including anxiety and depression.

Are gluten-free diets for everyone?  Vicki Schwartz, a professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University, reports that if there is no medical reason, such as gluten-sensitivity, to go gluten-free, specific nutrients in gluten-containing foods are lost. These include vitamin B, fiber, and iron(1). There are tests for wheat allergy and celiac disease, which even when negative, can be further investigated with a gluten-free diet. If physical symptoms improve, gluten issues are very likely. Dr. Schwartz’s point is that going gluten-free without these sensitivities may lead to nutritional deficiencies if other sources of these vitamins and minerals are not obtained through diet.  

What is the gluten-mood link? For one thing, problems with gluten can damage our gastrointestinal tract and interfere with the absorption of nutrients.  Nutrients, especially from whole foods, help us to feel good, providing energy and running the body in general.  With malabsorption, less of the amino acid, tryptophan, is absorbed, which is needed to make serotonin, our body’s “feel good” chemical.  When serotonin levels dip, we are at increased risk for anxiety and depression.  

Trudi Scott, CN, in her article, Food and Mood: The science behind the effects of food on anxiety, social phobia & panic attacks, & supporting a healthy mood (Hawthorn University Feb. 2014) reports studies finding a connection between gluten-related conditions and an increase in emotional issues. These include anxiety, social phobias, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. In one study, a group of adults not responding well to traditional anti-depressant medications were placed on a gluten-free diet and their anxiety dissipated significantly. The change was so dramatic that they no longer described themselves as anxious.

Scott also reported benefits from including probiotics in diets when there are gluten-related conditions, including significant decreases in depression and anxiety.  Probiotics also help to decrease the bad bacteria that can make us sick as they are a source of healthy bacteria. 

What does it mean to be gluten-free?  Experimenting with a gluten-free diet to help improve mood symptoms associated with gluten issues does not mean consuming processed gluten-free foods since these are often laden with added sugar, fat, and sodium to enhance taste and texture.  For this reason, people actually have found themselves gaining weight when consuming gluten-free processed foods.  Sugar in and of itself can affect mood especially when we eat too much, which results in a sugar high followed by a sugar crash, and an associated depression and anxiety.  Diets consisting of mostly of whole foods, including grass-fed beef, cold-water fish, particularly of the wild variety, pasture-raised poultry, legumes, nuts, and seeds, have been found to support emotional health with gluten issues and health in general.  There is a greater chance of taking in more nutrients since we have more nutrients to work with in the first place. While nutrient absorption may be compromised at least there is a chance that some of these nutrients will be absorbed than if we live on a diet composed mostly of processed foods. 

Additionally, gluten-containing grains must be eliminated from the diet, including wheat, spelt, kamut, triticale, barley, and rye. Oats often are contaminated with wheat during growing or processing, and are best avoided. There are many whole grains available that are gluten-free and do not have added sugar, fat, and sodium found in many processed gluten-free foods. These include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, teff, and wild rice. One word of caution- foods fried in oil in restaurants can be contaminated with gluten-containing ingredients of foods having shared the same oil. While often filtered daily, one restaurant manager shared that some kitchens re-use the same oil for up to two weeks. Food for thought!

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.” – Hippocrates