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  • Dr. Vikki Petersen D.C, C.C.N

    Gluten Sensitivity and Depression

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    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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    I thought I was gluten-free and that it was the answer, but I had some serious depression and anxiety lately. Could dairy also contribute? Anytime I fast I feel great. I just don't know what specific allergies I do have. I don't have any money right now, so please don't tell me to go see a functional wellness practitioner. I will when I am back on my feet . The problem is that the mood swings ruin your life and when you are picking up the pieces, you can't afford the help that you need. I went through one of the top 3 hospital programs in the country and guess what...I spent most of my days eating graham crackers, cookies and coke of which they had an ample supply. They HAVE NO CLUE! They medicated me and sent me home. It was the Ultra Simple diet that saved my life. I am off track again. I was almost ready to take the pills they wanted me to take...all at once, when I decided to try going back to that plan...remove all junk food, sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, eggs and see if I can get on track. I can't count how many times I have picked myself back up. I am so sick of it.


    So if I go clean...how long does it take? Can anyone give me 2 decades of my life back? Please? Maybe the hospital should. They are supposed to help. For me, their program would be free. Ironic, huh? I have a job now and if I stay clean (Sound like an alcoholic here...bread is like that for me) then I hope to have the money to get a functional doctor or naturopath to help me. Last time, I did the diet for 2 months and started feeling strange. I needed help and couldn't afford it. Ok. Enough rambling. Thanks so much for this article and all these helpful posts!!!!

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    As a Family Nurse Practitioner for 13 years with quite a bit of psychiatric experience, I agree that depression may in some cases be related to celiac disease. But it is important to remember that there are usually a significant combination of causes that lead to mood disorders, such a nutritional deficiencies, as well as life events and stressors, and genetics. Not all depressed/anxious patients have celiac disease as you suggest in you article. I would not be too quick to write off the role of genetic pre-disposition as a contributing factor to mood disorders- you also suggest this is "false data". Where is the data?

    Your statement..."Where is the data?" It's all over this page. Even without research, individuals are proving good results. It's sad to learn that hard work and invested time in your particular studies will most definitely be affected by this newfound knowledge.

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    This article is a bit frightening, as one may assume their depression will disappear if they eliminate gluten from their diet. I am and have been on a gluten-free diet since 2005. It changed my life. Our food choices most definitely make a difference in how we feel. My asthma disappeared, my body aches, and my allergies. In 2010, still eating gluten free, I found myself in the hospital for planning my suicide. I still eat gluten-free, and I "pop" a pill that helps alleviate depression. What comes first, mental illness or celiac disease? The chicken or the egg?

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    Guest W. RoBards, RN, ND


    I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance through genetic testing and a stool test for gliadin. I have improved by following a gluten-free diet. I have a 45 year history of major depression/anxiety. Following a gluten free diet did not completely free me of depression/anxiety, but I also have candidiasis which has affected my entire gastrointestinal tract and crossed the blood brain barrier. This condition was caused by the many antibiotics I received since childhood, steroids for inflammation and eating too much sugar. Candidiasis causes malabsorption issues/dysbiosis and the proper neurotransmitters don't reach the synapses of the brain, hence, depression/anxiety/fatigue/insomnia, etc. I have to take large doses of amino acids. So if going gluten free does not alleviate your "neurotransmitter deficiency disorder", please consider an overgrowth of yeast/fungi. Most physicians don't recognize this condition, but as a Reg. Nurse and Naturopath, I know it's real.

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    Even if the cause is gluten, it is still a "chemical imbalance." Additionally, if you are so "imbalanced" that one single thing, gluten, can throw you off that much then you still have a problem. Most disorders, including depression, can be largely managed with lifestyle changes (diet and exercise) for those who are willing to make the change. Often some medications are still necessary, but at much lower doses and therefore fewer side effects. Claiming gluten free will fix all that ails you is just as bad a claiming medication is the only answer. Few physicians actually claim that, it is the patient who wants the "magic pill" to fix everything rather than changing their diet and going to the gym.

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  • About Me

    Dr. Vikki Petersen, a Chiropractor and Certified Clinical Nutritionist is co-founder and co-director, of the renowned HealthNow Medical Center in Sunnyvale, California. Acclaimed author of a new book, "The Gluten Effect" - celebrated by leading experts as an epic leap forward in gluten sensitivity diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Vikki is acknowledged as a pioneer in advances to identify and treat gluten sensitivity. The HealthNOW Medical Center uses a multi-disciplined approach to addressing complex health problems. It combines the best of internal medicine, clinical nutrition, chiropractic and physical therapy to identify the root cause of a patient's health condition and provide patient-specific wellness solutions. Her Web site is:

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