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Mental Health, Gluten and Dairy.....

I have had an allergy to dairy since I was a child and I also notice I feel better by not including gluten in my diet. So I avoid both; it seems over the last few years it has become more fashionable for people to cut out gluten and dairy and although, as a nutritional therapist, I would not recommend removing food groups unless you choose to be vegan (not consuming dairy) or there seems to be an underlying imbalance in your health that suggests you may benefit from eliminating them.

But what I have really become interested in is the link between dairy, wheat and gluten and mental health. There has been research in the past that seems to suggest that people with schizophrenia or who suffer from paranoia or psychosis often see an improvement in symptoms when they cut out dairy, wheat and gluten products. I really wanted to look into why this might be.

It is quite complex science and not well studied in recent years but there is research that shows there is a link between gluten and mental health. It was first noticed in World War Two when there was a wheat shortage, that there was a direct relationship with drops in hospitalization for schizophrenia. It has also been reported in other countries, such as the South Pacific Islands, that when western grain products were introduced they saw a rise in people being diagnosed with schizophrenia. There may be other factors involved, such as genetics and previous viral infections, that influence how eating bread can adversely affect mind and body.

Bread (which includes wheat and the protein molecule gluten) increase the permeability of the lining of the gut wall and also that of the permeability of the blood brain barrier. Research has shown that people with more inflammation in their gut have a higher association with psychiatric disorders. Having a leaky gut allows harmful bacteria, toxins and undigested food to cross the gut wall and get into blood and body which can cause an immune reaction. It is worth noting that psychological stress can worsen gut permeability and inflammation, and this can predict the onset and severity of mental health disorders.

There is a range of gluten sensitivity, from celiac disease which is an auto-immune condition to non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a milder reaction where people sometimes report symptoms such as a “foggy” mind and feel better on a gluten-free diet. It may be an immune reaction to gluten and dairy, in those who are predisposed to it that adversely affect people’s mental health.

Gluten resembles brain-relevant substances, and the antibodies to gluten can cause damage to the brain where they can actually attack the compounds of the nerves myelin sheath and the cerebellar proteins in the brain. These antibodies can also attack enzymes involved in the production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that when dysregulated is implicated in anxiety and depression. These antibodies triggered by gluten have been seen in higher levels in patients with schizophrenia whether or not they have celiac disease. Research suggests even a hyper-sensitivity to wheat can lead to a range of mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar, depression and anxiety.

Gluten is also thought to have an effect on gut microbes that have been linked to mood. I would like to discuss the link between the microbiome and mental health in another blog post.

When gluten, and it is the same for dairy, is broken down during digestion the protein fragments can have opioid-like activity both in the gut and, if they cross the blood-brain barrier, in the brain. Which can explain why these foods can cause cravings and are hard to give up but they are also linked to behavioural disorders such as those seen in schizophrenia. Research has shown there are higher levels of these exorphins in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid of patients with schizophrenia along with higher levels of the gluten antibodies as well.

So a diet devoid of wheat and dairy with its proteins of gluten and casein (the dairy protein) has been shown to improve mental illness, but this evidence has often been down played in recent years. The best evidence has come from schizophrenic patients in hospital where meals have been supervised and following a dairy and gluten-free diet saw an improvement for these patients and a return in symptoms if dairy and gluten was re-introduced. The evidence suggests improvements in psychiatric symptoms on a free-from diet, and what I would like to see is more modern research being done to help unravel this link.

If you suffer from a mental illness, with the guidance of a nutritional therapist it may be worth thinking about going on a gluten and diary free diet and see if you notice any improvements in your mental health. An elimination diet is not a substitute for proper medical advice, and even if you do see improvements still engage with your medical support team and do not stop any medication that you have been advised to take. But cutting out dairy and gluten may be something to consider within an overall nutritional protocol.

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