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Depression and Gluten Sensitivity

By Dr. Kristie

When a patient complains of depression, few doctors look for the reason why. Instead they usually recommend an antidepressant medication to treat the symptoms. But according to Dr. Vikki Petersen, author of The Gluten Effect, symptoms of depression can stem from problems with the intestinal tract in some people.

A certain percentage of the population is sensitive to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. When they’re exposed to gluten through diet, their immune system attacks the lining of their small intestines causing inflammation.

This often leads to unpleasant intestinal symptoms such as abdominal bloating, diarrhea and pain. This condition, known as celiac disease, affects at least 1% of the population and probably more. Fortunately, most celiac disease sufferers improve on a gluten-free diet.

Depression and Gluten: Gluten Sensitivity Affects More Than Just the Intestines

Few people realize that celiac disease can affect the nervous system too. When the immune system attacks the small intestines as a consequence of gluten exposure, the antibodies formed against a protein in gluten called gliadin can attack proteins in the brain since they’re so similar in structure.

The immune system essentially launches an attack its own tissues leading to low-grade inflammation and, in some cases, symptoms of depression or anxiety.

When antibodies against gluten attack the brain and nervous system, it can lead to symptoms similar to those of some neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. In fact, some experts believe that gluten-sensitivity contributes to these diseases and that a gluten-free diet helps to relieve the symptoms.

Going Gluten-Free: Does It Relieve Depression?

Can a gluten-free diet help the symptoms of depression too? One study published in BMC Psychiatry, showed that adolescents who suffered from depression improved after only three months on a gluten-free diet. But research looking at gluten sensitivity and celiac disease is still limited.

There are other reasons why people with gluten sensitivity might experience symptoms of depression. Celiac disease causes malabsorption of some vitamins and minerals.

Deficiency of some vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folate and magnesium are linked to symptoms of depression. Going gluten-free helps to heal the intestinal lining and reduce the loss of these vitamins and minerals, which may relieve symptoms of depression.

Depression and Gluten: The Bottom Line?

Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity affects more than just the intestines. Not everyone who has celiac disease has obvious intestinal symptoms. There are some gluten-sensitive people who aren’t even aware they have a problem. Celiac disease can sometimes manifest only with neurological symptoms, depression or anxiety.

If you’re suffering from depression and have intestinal symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea or abdominal cramping, see your doctor. Even if you’re not having intestinal symptoms, try a gluten-free diet for three months and see if your depression improves.


  • MSNBC. “Undiagnosed Gluten Intolerance May Be the Cause of Depression”
  • BMC Psychiatry. 2005. Mar 17; 5:14. 


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