This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of Journal of Gluten Sensitivity.

Celiac.com 03/02/2009 - Patients with depression are told they have a chemical imbalance.  If someone else in their family is also depressed, the “gene card” is played.  “Your depression is genetic”, they are told.

I have been in practice for over 20 years and I find the above data to be false.  Consistently we find patients who are suffering from depression and anxiety to be gluten sensitive. How could a food cause depression?  Let’s take a look.

After the digestive tract, the most commonly affected system to be affected by gluten is the nervous system. It is thought that depression can be caused by gluten in one of two ways.  

The first area addresses the inflammatory changes gluten can cause. A gluten sensitive individual’s immune system responds to the protein gliadin.  Unfortunately, that protein is similar in structure to other proteins present in the body, including those of the brain and nerve cells. A cross reactivity can occur whereby the immune system “confuses” proteins in the body for the protein gliadin.  This is called cellular mimicry and the result is the body attacking it’s own tissues with inflammation resulting. When inflammation happens in the brain and nervous system, a variety of symptoms can occur, including depression. Research shows us that patients with symptoms involving the nervous system suffer from digestive problems only 13% of the time.  This is significant because mainstream medicine equates gluten sensitivity almost exclusively with digestive complaints.

In a study examining blood flow to the brain, 15 patients with untreated celiac disease were compared to 15 patients treated with a gluten-free diet for a year.  The findings were amazing. In the untreated group, 73% had abnormalities in brain circulation by testing while only 7% in the treated group showed any abnormalities. The patients with the brain circulation problems were frequently suffering from anxiety and depression as well.

In addition to circulation problems, other research looks at the association between gluten sensitivity and its interference with protein absorption.  Specifically the amino acid tryptophan can be deficient. Tryptophan is a protein in the brain responsible for a feeling of well-being and relaxation. A deficiency can be correlated to feelings of depression and anxiety.

Our society is too willing to accept a “chemical imbalance” as an explanation for their symptoms and instead of getting to the root cause of the condition, simply swallow a pill – a pill that in the case of anti-depressants has very dangerous and sometimes lethal side effects.

The frequency with which we are able to successfully taper patients off their anti-depressants is considered “unbelievable” to many mainstream doctors, yet we do it regularly.  How is that possible?  We actually diagnose the root cause of the depression.  Frequently the culprit is gluten, and in such cases a gluten-free diet is the main path to recovery.

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