Understanding the link between gluten and mental health is critical for practitioners, parents, and kids alike. There has been a lack of education in this space, specifically on how gluten affects the brain and the symptoms it can cause.
We have experienced a piece of this personally and it changed everything for our family. At 4 years old, my daughter began experiencing symptoms of ADHD, poor mental clarity, an inability to focus and became extremely temperamental. Months later, physical symptoms appeared leading us to the diagnosis of celiac. We removed gluten from her diet as we were told and her mental symptoms went from bad to worse over the next 3 weeks. We are talking about a sad, depressed, angry toddler with zero attention span.
There is a lack of education on the connections between gluten and mental health
Confused by her reaction to a diet that was supposed to be better for her, I dove into a rabbit hole of research, meetings with functional practitioners, blogs and other parents with celiac children. What I found was astounding. The fact that not one person had discussed the implications of gluten for her mental health or educated on the withdrawal symptoms she would experience was disheartening. In fact, to help her symptoms, I was offered prescription meds for her.
Meanwhile, my older daughter who was negative for celiac had severe anxiety and huge emotional swings that were all too similar for me to not wonder about the correlation of gluten sensitivity and its effects on mental health alone. As we walked that journey out, we were able to determine she not only had a gluten sensitivity but reacted strongly to the peptides that cause inflammation within the brain.
Not understanding the correlation between gluten and mental health could lead to unnecessary medication.
This lack of knowledge and understanding has resulted in many receiving medication for symptoms that a gluten-free diet may have improved or even eliminated. It is clear that with an estimated 50% of the US population on some type of psychotropic drug, prescription meds are not solving the underlying problem. Before considering a lifelong medication for a child or adult, the relationship between gluten and its effect on mental health must be considered. Understanding what gluten is and how it affects the body and the brain has the ability to change the trajectory of lives drastically.
In conventional offices, gluten sensitivity is difficult to diagnose and is typically a diagnosis of exclusion. A common misconception is that gluten sensitivity is a disease of the small bowel and presents only with digestive symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation. I hear parents say all the time that our digestion is fine so that is not the answer.
However, gluten sensitivity is primarily and sometimes exclusively neurological. Research indicates that likely 1 in 10 people have gluten sensitivity. And, 57% of people who present with neurologic symptoms of unknown origin are positive for anti-gliadin antibodies that suggest gluten intolerance. There are a variety of neurologic and psychiatric conditions linked to gluten sensitivity. These include anxiety, depression, migraines, brain fog, ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, memory loss, mood disorders, personality disorders, seizure disorders, ataxia, neuropathy, cerebellar degeneration, white matter lesions, myasthenia gravis and multiple sclerosis. Some of these conditions are severe. But, it’s important to note that what may seem “normal”, such as headaches and kids with large emotions, may not be normal at all.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the main storage protein contained within wheat, barley and rye. The protein acts as a binder and allows for food to have an elastic or stretchy effect. Think pizza dough. A portion of this protein that is important to note for identifying gluten sensitivity is called gliadin. Positive gliadin antibodies on a blood test can show that the body is reacting to gluten.
How gluten affects the brain
Once gluten is ingested, it has been shown to increase intestinal permeability otherwise known as “leaky gut.” The tight junctions that line the mucosal barrier are now open. This allows undigested proteins such as gluten to pass through the mucosal barrier and reach the gut mucosa. For some, this is where digestive symptoms occur. In a celiac, an immune response is initiated and damage to the small intestine occurs. In non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), the proteins do not cause damage to the gut villi. However, they can still cause digestive symptoms here in some.
For both conditions, the proteins can cross into the bloodstream and then the blood-brain barrier. There are a few proposed mechanisms of how and why gluten affects the brain. One of the most prominent is that by interacting with opioid brain receptors, gluten can affect behavior or trigger immune cells that migrate to the brain. This results in neuroinflammation and interference with the central nervous system. This is where the mental health symptoms related to gluten sensitivity begin. Instead of first jumping to medication to reduce symptoms, the offending agent causing the inflammation in the first place needs to be removed.
I was surprised to learn gluten has addictive properties and binds to the same opioid receptors responding to prescription pain medication. If you are someone who experiences opioid effects, removing gluten can cause withdrawal and worsening of symptoms for a few weeks. This is why my daughter’s symptoms were so exacerbated when we started her gluten-free diet. This piece of education is important so we can be prepared and understand why symptoms feel exacerbated for a period of time before they are better.
Work with a knowledgeable practitioner to explore gluten and mental health concerns.
The gut-brain connection is extremely intertwined and gluten sensitivity may present itself with only neurologic symptoms. I am passionate about educating on this topic as understanding this connection allowed me to get my daughters back and subsequently help me understand many of my own ups and downs. Removing gluten is the first step. But, further healing of the gut will allow for more nutrient absorption and healing of the blood-brain barrier. I encourage you to walk with a practitioner who understands this process and how to support subsequent healing. As practitioners, parents, and teachers we need to be advocates for anyone experiencing neurologic symptoms and the possibility of how a gluten-free diet may be a helpful tool in both their physical and mental health. Everyone should have the opportunity to heal both their body and brain. Food is medicine.
If you are looking to understand more about gluten sensitivity or its effects on the body, mental health, and children’s behavior, I would love to connect with you.