If your body has an intolerance to gluten, it may let you know to both physical and mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

The causes of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression aren’t yet established. Experts theorize they may be a combination of factors like genetics, early experiences, and environment. But it’s also possible that chemical reactions in your body may act as contributing factors.

For instance, when your body has difficulty processing nutrients like gluten, some cognitive functions like emotional regulation and stress management may become more challenging. This, in turn, could affect your mood and behavior.

Yes. It’s possible that gluten intolerance may increase the chance of experiencing symptoms of depression in some people, though research findings on this topic remain mixed.

An older 2009 longitudinal study found that people living with celiac disease, a digestive disorder linked to gluten intolerance, had a higher chance of experiencing depression. The study however also found that going on a gluten-free diet did not improve symptoms.

Study authors theorized that depression was more likely linked to the quality of life associated with celiac disease than the gluten itself. More research is needed to establish the correlational link between gluten and depression.

In 2014, a small study found that re-introducing gluten to people on a gluten-free diet who had controlled gluten sensitivity symptoms resulted in an immediate increase in symptoms of depression. Eating gluten again didn’t worsen their gastrointestinal symptoms or any other signs of emotional indisposition, however.

Authors implied that consuming gluten may have a direct impact on mood symptoms.

In a 2020 literature review exploring 20 years of research, the authors concluded that the immune response to gluten in a gluten-intolerant body may indeed lead to psychiatric and neurological responses.

While research is not conclusive and still ongoing, some evidence suggests gluten may play a role in depression symptoms when your body is intolerant or sensitive to it.

Yes. Consuming gluten on a regular basis may facilitate symptoms of anxiety in some people, but research is limited.

The same 2009 study that didn’t find a direct link between gluten consumption and depression did note that symptoms of anxiety were significantly diminished once a person went on a gluten-free diet.

A 2021 review found that limiting consumption of gluten and FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) may be beneficial for symptoms of depression, anxiety, and cognitive challenges. Some of the studies reviewed also suggested that this diet would help symptoms of schizophrenia and challenges seen on the autism spectrum.

Nutrition and mental health

While the verdict may be out on the exact link between gluten intolerance, depression, and anxiety, what you eat may still be important to overall mental health.

The relationship between food and mental health is likely complex. Immune responses — like gluten intolerance — and bodily reactions related to digestion and glycemia may all play a role in your mood and sense of mental well-being.

Evidence suggests that nutrient-dense diets are associated with better mental health outcomes, compared to other types of eating habits.

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If you have gluten intolerance, going on a gluten-free diet under the guidance of a health team may help you feel better both physically and mentally.

Going gluten-free isn’t for everyone, however.

There are currently no large-scale studies that support the benefits of a gluten-free diet for people without gluten intolerances.

Research from 2018 indicates there are a number of potential adverse effects of taking on a medically unnecessary gluten-free diet. These include:

  • nutrient deficiency
  • increased food costs
  • social isolation
  • compulsive dietary behaviors

In an attempt to avoid gluten, you may compensate by overconsuming other foods that could inadvertently increase your chance of experiencing other types of health symptoms.

White rice, for example, is gluten-free but excessive consumption may lead you to experience health challenges. For example, back in 2012, a meta-analysis that included more than 350,000 participants found people who ate the most white rice had the highest chances of developing type 2 diabetes.

If you’re thinking about trying a gluten-free diet, consider discussing these changes with a health professional first.

Gluten intolerance may lead some people to experience a higher chance of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety. The exact cause or link remains under debate.

If you’re concerned about changes in your mood or notice patterns associated with your eating habits, speaking with your health team may help.

While there are no laboratory tests for gluten sensitivity, diet changes are often the first step toward identifying gluten intolerance.

A health professional can help you make sure a gluten-free diet will work for you. If you continue experiencing mental health symptoms, consider reaching out to a therapist who may explore other possible causes.