According to statistics, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America.
This means, if you struggle with generalized anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, OCD, or PTSD, you certainly have a lot of company.
When feeling anxious, some of us like to turn to our favorite comfort foods. Among these may be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some donuts, a hearty bowl of macaroni and cheese, or a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup.
We crave these foods when we’re anxious because carbohydrates release an amino acid in the brain that creates a calming effect.
But what if these carbohydrates are affecting your brain in a totally different way, one which might actually make your anxiety worse?
Hidden Gluten Sensitivity Worsens Anxiety
Several studies have suggested that poor gut health is the root of all mental illness.
When the gut becomes inflamed, it triggers an inflammatory response throughout the rest of the body, including the brain.
Chronic intestinal inflammation can result in a condition called “leaky gut” syndrome. This occurs when the lining of your intestinal wall becomes more porous than it should be, allowing bits of undigested food, bacteria, and toxins into your bloodstream.
This inflammation can lead to anxiety, depression, brain fog, cognitive dysfunction, and other neurological symptoms. Furthermore, some of the harmful bacteria that travel through a leaky gut into the bloodstream release toxic molecules called lipopolysaccharides, which have been linked to the development of various psychiatric disorders.
Gluten cross-reactivity is another way gluten can harm your neurological system. Because gluten and brain tissue are of similar structure, when your immune system attacks the gluten in your blood, it may go after your brain and nerve tissue as well.
Gluten seems to prominently affect the following three areas of the brain:
- Cerebellum – The cerebellum is responsible for the regulation and coordination of speech, balance regulation, motor learning, and coordination of voluntary movements.
- Pons – The pons sends signals from the forebrain to the cerebellum, along with nuclei that primarily have to do with respiration, eye movement, taste, facial expressions, facial sensations, hearing, bladder control, and posture.
- Medulla – The medulla is responsible for controlling autonomic functions such as breathing, heart and blood pressure function, swallowing, and digestion.
If one or more of these parts of your brain are being affected by gluten, it may not only explain your anxiety, but any other neurological symptoms you may have as well.
Other Common Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity
- Chronic abdominal pain
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Rumbling intestines
- Excessive flatulence
- Oily, foul-smelling stools
- Skin blistering and rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
- Easy bruising
- Hair loss
- Mouth ulcers
- Missed menstrual periods
- Muscle cramps and joint pain
Testing for Gluten Sensitivity – Your Options
- Celiac Antibody Test
The standard blood test for celiac disease is the anti-transglutaminase antibody test. The trouble is, it will come up negative if you don’t have the autoimmune disease itself. To find out if you’re sensitive to gluten, you will need more comprehensive testing.
You should ask your doctor for deamidated gliadin, glutenin, gluteomorphins, prodynorphin, wheat germ agglutinin, and gluten cross-reactivity tests as well. These will give you and your doctor a much more accurate picture of how gluten may be affecting you.
If your general practitioner is not current on these tests or is unwilling to provide them, a naturopathic physician or osteopathic physician may be able to help.
Click on the links below to find a naturopathic or osteopathic physician in your area.
- Endoscopic Biopsy
The tried-and-true way to test for celiac disease is an endoscopic biopsy. This is done by sedating the patient and easing an endoscope (a long, thin tube with a small camera on the end) into the digestive tract to search for damaged intestinal tissue.
Two or three samples of the tissue are collected using instruments fed through the endoscope. If these samples come back positive for celiac disease, an official diagnosis is made.
- Gluten Elimination Diet
Of course, you could just skip all that “fun” and go straight to a gluten elimination diet.
This is how I found out about my own gluten intolerance. The elimination diet I did was very strict, and you’re welcome to follow it. However, if you’re only concerned about gluten as the possible culprit for your symptoms, start by cutting this one thing out of your diet first.
If you’re unfamiliar with the gluten-free diet, make an appointment with a nutritionist, or visit a local health food store that carries gluten-free items and let them walk you through the process. Most bottles and packages are clearly labeled gluten free now, so you’ll be less likely to make a mistake.
Also, take stock of any over-the-counter and prescription drugs you’re taking. Talk with your pharmacist. Could wheat or gluten be used as an additive or filler in any of the pills?
Once you’ve cut any and all traces of gluten from your diet for two months, it will be time to reintroduce it. Cancel your plans for the day, buy extra toilet paper, set out your pajamas, and sit down to your favorite gluten-heavy meal. If you’re intolerant to this protein, you’ll probably feel terrible within a few hours.
If you have it on hand, take some activated charcoal pills*, drink plenty of water, and settle into bed until the discomfort passes. When it does, you’ll be ready to get rid of gluten for good. Not only will you notice an improvement in your physical health, you may find your anxiety disappears as well.
*Do not use charcoal tablets if you are allergic to charcoal or within 4 hours of taking a prescription or OTC medication, as it will bind to the drugs, making them less effective.
Even if it turns out gluten is making you anxious, this doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite comfort foods forever; you’ll just have to modify them a bit.
Need Some Recipe Ideas?
Click on the photo below to pick up your copy of The Complete Allergy-Free Comfort Foods Cookbook by Elizabeth Gordon