Gluten. Many of us hear the term frequently, whether via news coverage, on popular television, or even while conversing with friends and family. In recent years, it has also become a common term to see in your local establishments, as more and more gluten-free options are arriving in grocery stores and restaurants alike. So, what is gluten, and why is it so controversial?
Are there negative effects of gluten you should be concerned about? What if you’ve not been diagnosed as gluten intolerant or gluten-sensitive? Understanding what gluten is and how it -may be beneficial in improving your overall mental health.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the term used for a family of proteins that are found in grains like wheat, rye, barley, and spelt. Wheat is the most common gluten-containing grain, and wheat gluten is found in a vast array of foods. When flour is mixed with water, the glutinous proteins in the flour create a sticky network that has a glue-like consistency. This is what makes dough elastic, so bread and other baked goods have room to rise when baking. It is also what provides a chewy texture to baked goods. Finally, this glue-like consistency is also behind the term “gluten.”
Dietary gluten consists of two proteins: glutenin and gliadin. When it comes to the adverse physical health effects many people experience after consuming gluten, gliadin is typically the culprit. However, gluten can also impact your mental health, as well. Learn more about the science of gluten to see if it may affect you.
Gluten and Psychiatric Disorders
Psychiatric disorders are one of the most pressing concerns when it comes to the modern, gluten-filled diet. A number of neurological and psychiatric conditions have been linked to both gluten consumption and non-celiac gluten sensitivities. In fact, the connection is so significant that researchers coined the term “gluten-related neurological disorders,” or GRND, to refer to these conditions.
For example, gluten has long been linked to psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. More recently, researchers postulated that either the gut allows gluten to cross the blood-brain barrier or triggers an immune response in the brain. This causes hallucinations and psychosis in some people.1 Other research reveals nerve cell and brain cell damage, inflammation, and loss.2
In addition, inflammation, gluten byproducts and the appearance of gluten-adjacent microbes in the gut have been associated with numerous psychiatric disorders, including the following:3
autism spectrum disorders
other mood disorders
How Does Gluten Affect Your Physical Health?
Due to the increased prevalence and rising awareness of gluten sensitivities and intolerances, it’s important to question what role gluten has to play in our overall health. There are three separate classes of negative reactions to dietary gluten that range in severity (described below). For example, some individuals may react to gluten as if it were a toxin. This causes the immune system cells to react and attack, a condition known as celiac disease. In others, the consistent consumption of gluten can cause inflammation. Common side effects include fatigue, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. In more severe cases, side effects can include weight loss and intestinal damage.
While there are certainly negative effects that come with eating gluten, it is important not to avoid grains altogether in an effort to avoid gluten. Studies show that whole grains, with the beneficial bran and germ still attached, are an excellent source of fiber and can lead to improved health conditions. A healthy intake of whole grains can reduce risks of heart disease and stroke as well as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. Gluten can also feed the good bacteria in our bodies, acting as a prebiotic.4
What Foods Contain Gluten?
If you’re thinking that it seems like all this gluten sensitivity wasn’t an issue decades ago, you’re correct. Traditional methods of creating bread and other baked goods thoroughly incorporated yeast that was capable of breaking down the gluten during the rising process. Unfortunately, processed baked goods either skip this process altogether or hastily add yeast at a much later stage, leaving far more gluten in the final product.
In addition, gluten has several functions within processed foods. It can serve to bind ingredients together, provide filler, or even stand in as a starch. Worse, since gluten is so inexpensive and may actually increase appetite, companies often have no problem including gluten in processed foods. As a result, grains like wheat may be bred to include more gluten than they did before.
That means gluten can be found in a wide variety of foods. Typical foods that include gluten are:
Foods containing wheat, barley, rye, and spelt
Bread and bagels
Pastas and couscous
Waffles and pancakes
Other baked goods like cake, cookies, muffins, pies, and pastries
Some condiments like dressings and soy sauce
Whether you are gluten-intolerant, gluten-sensitive, or otherwise trying to avoid gluten in your diet, it is important to read labels carefully. If you’re dining out at a restaurant, equal caution is necessary. Many restaurants now label dishes that contain gluten; if you don’t see any labels, inquire about the gluten content of bread, chips, and other products. While many places now accommodate those who are gluten-intolerant with gluten-free menu substitutions, this isn’t always the case.
Types of Gluten Reactions
Gluten can cause a wide variety of digestive and health problems, which can differ depending on the type of gluten reaction you have. There are three primary health problems associated with gluten consumption, including wheat allergy, celiac disease, and sensitivity to gluten. These health concerns can have similar symptoms, so it is beneficial to understand how they differ from one another.
A wheat allergy is a rare form of gluten intolerance. It can cause health issues like respiratory, digestive, and skin irritations that can range in severity. Those who question whether or not they have a wheat allergy should see an allergist to ensure the best treatment possible. Individuals with a wheat allergy can often consume other foods that contain gluten without adverse effects.
Common symptoms of a wheat allergy include:
Celiac disease is a type of autoimmune condition that causes a severe, lifelong intolerance of gluten. When someone with celiac disease consumes a food containing gluten, the immune system views the gluten as an invader and goes on the attack. Attacks by white blood cells can result in damage to the lining of the gut, otherwise known as the villi, which are hair-like structures in the small intestine and aid in nutrient absorption. Damaged villi can impact the body’s ability to uptake the vitamins and minerals needed for survival.
Symptoms of celiac disease include the following:
Diarrhea or constipation
Joint and muscle pain
A gastrointestinal specialist can provide an accurate diagnosis for individuals who fear they may be experiencing symptoms of celiac disease. Blood work is commonly performed to look for genetic markers as well as gluten-related antibodies. It is also common for a physician to take a sample from the upper intestine to determine the amount of damage done to the villi.
For those learning to navigate life with celiac disease, treatment involves a lifelong commitment to a gluten-free diet.
Sensitivity to Gluten
Gluten sensitivities are commonly defined as gluten-related digestive symptoms that neither involve an immune response nor an allergic reaction. As a result, diagnosis of this “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” may be made by ruling out both celiac disease and wheat allergy. However, an individual who is sensitive to gluten may experience some of the same symptoms as individuals with celiac disease without intestinal damage. Together, non-celiac gluten sensitivities are the most significant group of gluten reactions associated with mental health disorders.
It is important to note that gluten intolerance is considered by many physicians to be the same as gluten sensitivity, with more severe or more sustained negative effects. For example, if mild symptoms last only a short time after consuming gluten, the condition may be termed gluten sensitivity. Severe symptoms that remain for a longer period may be diagnosed as gluten intolerance.
Common signs of gluten intolerance include the following:
Anxiety or depression
It is currently unknown how many people have gluten sensitivity or intolerance since there is no standard test to detect this condition. The best option for individuals who suspect gluten sensitivity is to explore an elimination diet that cuts out certain gluten-containing foods to assess any changes in health. Then, slowly reintroduce that food to see if health changes again. Various studies continue to explore this condition to determine its prevalence, but it is not yet known if there are long-term health concerns associated with gluten sensitivity.5
15 Years Experience by Professionals Who Understand Your Journey.
Gluten can have adverse effects on a person’s mental health, even without an official diagnosis of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. The growing number of gluten-free products on the market and increased awareness about the pitfalls of gluten have led to an increase in individuals choosing a gluten-free lifestyle to pursue improved health. Whether you need to be mindful of gluten to combat celiac disease or you are looking for a better way to care for your body and mind, there are several benefits associated with going gluten-free.6
Improved Energy Levels
A common side effect of gluten sensitivity is fatigue, especially after a meal rich in gluten. When gluten causes inflammation, the body is unable to absorb vitamins and minerals as it should. This barrier can prevent the body from operating as it should, leading to reduced energy. A gluten-free diet can allow for the proper absorption of nutrients. Many people report increasing energy levels with a gluten-free diet.7
Bloating is one of the most common side effects of gluten sensitivity. Bloating is often caused by a buildup of gas, which can cause a person to feel uncomfortable for hours following a meal. This can also lead to feelings of fatigue and overall discomfort. A gluten-free diet helps to minimize gas buildup following a meal. Many individuals who suffer from consistent bloating following meals notice an immediate change when cutting gluten from their diet.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Symptoms of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can include undesired weight loss or gain. This is often due to a combination of issues, including a lack of nutrition, low energy levels, and an impaired digestive system. These can all impact the function of your metabolism and cause weight gain or even unwanted weight loss in the case of celiac disease. Eliminating these issues by removing gluten from your diet can help your body operate as it should and improve your ability to regulate your weight.8
Ease Body Aches and Pains
Inflammation caused by gluten affects more than just the digestive system. For individuals with celiac disease, the body reacts to gluten as if it were a foreign invader. This can cause inflammation and pain in the joints and digestive tract. Eliminating gluten can ease these symptoms.9
One of the most significant benefits of a gluten-free diet is the natural shift toward eating healthier. Eliminating gluten means eliminating or minimizing the intake of most processed foods as well as other foods that can have a negative impact on your health. For example, processed foods, fried foods, desserts, and bread can have an adverse effect on your physical and mental health outside of gluten sensitivity alone. Processed foods have been linked to diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, as well as depression and anxiety disorders.10 By eliminating these types of foods, you’ll be eating healthier than ever before.
In addition to consuming fewer processed and unhealthy foods, removing gluten from your diet can lead to a natural increase in fruit and vegetable intake. Fruits and vegetables are gluten-free, making them an easy go-to snack or add-in for any recipe.
Following a Gluten-Free Diet
Following a gluten-free diet is the best way to avoid potential neurological impacts of gluten sensitivity or intolerance.11 While many are choosing to adopt this lifestyle, it can be a challenge when first starting out. Gluten is in a wide variety of foods beyond just bread and pasta. Gluten is also in many processed foods, which is why it is so crucial to read the labels on anything you eat or drink and consider avoiding over-processed foods altogether.
gluten-containing foods can be eliminated from your diet and you can build your diet around healthy, gluten-free foods. Focus on healthy, whole foods that are naturally gluten-free. Fortunately, you won’t need to go without many dietary staples.
There are several grains that are naturally gluten-free and can be used to fulfill your whole-grain quota. This includes:
While these grains are gluten-free, be aware that cross-contamination is possible in facilities that also process gluten-containing grains. Be sure to check for a gluten-free label to ensure your grain of choice is not affected.
Other healthy foods that are gluten-free include the following:
Fish and seafood
Tips for Gluten-Free Eating
While individuals with celiac disease need to exclude gluten as soon as possible to prevent further digestive distress, others who are gluten sensitive can reduce their consumption slowly or try an elimination diet. Here are a few tips to consider when adjusting to a gluten-free diet.
Read Food Labels
While there has been an increase in both the number of and the accessibility of gluten-free products in recent years, it is still important to read food labels. Gluten will be listed in the ingredients, even if it is only a small amount. It is common to list the specific grain containing gluten and place it in bold font.
While gluten-free labeling is voluntary, many companies are proud to provide gluten-free options and prominently label their products that are gluten-free. To use the gluten-free label, the product must adhere to FDA gluten-free regulations.
Use Gluten-Free Substitutes
Choosing a gluten-free lifestyle doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a wide variety of foods in your diet. Bread, pasta, and desserts are still an option; you’ll simply want to find the gluten-free alternatives that taste best to you. The previously-mentioned increase in gluten-free products means that substitutions are easier to find and often taste the same, if not better, than their gluten-rich counterparts.
Be Aware of Cross-Contamination
Even a small amount of gluten exposure can have serious health repercussions for someone with gluten intolerance. At home, be sure to wipe down counter surfaces and cutting boards as something as seemingly insignificant as breadcrumbs on a cutting board can stick to utensils or find their way into different food items. Similarly, watch food labels for cross-contamination warnings.
When eating out, choose gluten-free foods, but remain aware of cross-contamination. Don’t be shy about informing your server about your dietary restrictions and asking how the kitchen avoids cross-contamination. This ensures that those working in the kitchen can take extra precautions to protect your health.
Explore Naturally Gluten-Free Options
As previously stated, there is a wide variety of foods that are naturally gluten-free. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and most beverages. There are also plenty of gluten-free grains and cereals such as corn, quinoa, tapioca, and polenta. Whole foods are often gluten-free and can help you to experiment more in the kitchen.
Choose Your Beverages
Beverages like processed chocolate milk, processed coffee drinks, and even some shelf-stable drink mixes often contain gluten. Avoiding these – as well as many alcohol-containing drinks – is important if you’re going gluten-free. Most natural beverages like water, unprocessed fruit juices and milk are gluten-free.
Have Fun with It
Instead of viewing a gluten-free lifestyle as a challenge to overcome, consider it a fun new adventure in food exploration. Gluten-free substitutes vary in texture and taste. This allows you to experiment with different options to find what matches your personal taste. There are healthy, tasty substitutions for all foods that typically include gluten. Explore products and recipes online to expand your options.
Resist the Negative Health Effects of Gluten
Many individuals who decrease or eliminate their gluten intake experience positive changes in their mental health. Going gluten-free can lead to boosts in energy, better digestive health, reduced feelings of fatigue, and reduced neurological symptoms such as depression or anxiety.
Gluten and Mental Health – Alternative to Meds Center
Correction of diet through orthomolecular medicine principles is one of the many key components of every individualized treatment program at Alternative to Meds Center. We address dietary changes that will lead to better mental health outcomes. We do it in a delicious way, through gourmet-quality meals and snacks prepared with your best outcome in mind. Please contact the center for more information, or take a few moments to look at the rich variety of therapies that are offered to our clients, including a diet that is mindful of the impacts of gluten and mental health for our clients.
1. Lionetti, E., Leonardi, S., Franzonello, C., Mancardi, M., Ruggieri, M., & Catassi, C. (2015). Gluten Psychosis: Confirmation of a New Clinical Entity. Nutrients, 7(7), 5532–5539.https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7075235
2. Rouvroye, M. D., Zis, P., Van Dam, A. M., Rozemuller, A. J. M., Bouma, G., & Hadjivassiliou, M. (2020). The Neuropathology of Gluten-Related Neurological Disorders: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 12(3), 822. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12030822
3. Casella, G., Pozzi, R., Cigognetti, M., Bachetti, F., Torti, G., Cadei, M., Villanacci, V., Baldini, V., & Bassotti, G. (2017). Mood disorders and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Minerva gastroenterologica e dietologica, 63(1), 32–37. https://doi.org/10.23736/S1121-421X.16.02325-4
7. Silvester, J. A., Weiten, D., Graff, L. A., Walker, J. R., & Duerksen, D. R. (2016). Living gluten‐free: adherence, knowledge, lifestyle adaptations and feelings towards a gluten‐free diet. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 29(3), 374-382.https://doi.org/10.1111/jhn.12316
8. Ukkola, A., Mäki, M., Kurppa, K., Collin, P., Huhtala, H., Kekkonen, L., & Kaukinen, K. (2012). Changes in body mass index on a gluten-free diet in coeliac disease: a nationwide study. European journal of internal medicine, 23(4), 384-388.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejim.2011.12.012
9. Matei, D. E., Menon, M., Alber, D. G., Smith, A. M., Nedjat-Shokouhi, B., Fasano, A., Magill, L., Duhlin, A., Bitoun, S., Gleizes, A., Hacein-Bey-Abina, S., Manson, J. J., Rosser, E. C., ABIRISK Consortium, Klein, N., Blair, P. A., & Mauri, C. (2021). Intestinal barrier dysfunction plays an integral role in arthritis pathology and can be targeted to ameliorate disease. Med (New York, N.Y.), 2(7), 864–883.e9.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.medj.2021.04.013
10. Ljungberg, T., Bondza, E., & Lethin, C. (2020). Evidence of the Importance of Dietary Habits Regarding Depressive Symptoms and Depression. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(5), 1616.https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17051616
This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.
Dr. Samuel Lee
Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente. He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.
Lyle Murphy is the founder of the Alternative to Meds Center, a licensed residential program that helps people overcome dependence on psychiatric medication and addiction issues using holistic and psychotherapeutic methods.
Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken as medical advice. The information provided on the website is intended to encourage, not replace, direct patient-health professional relationships. Always consult with your doctor before altering your medications. Adding nutritional supplements may alter the effect of medication. Any medication changes should be done only after proper evaluation and under medical supervision.
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