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Women: Gluten Allergy Might Make You Depressed

Jan 5 2012 | Comments 31

When I was a kid, I was aware that my grandmother was frequently sick as a result of something called “sprue.” It meant she had a weird diet, and was very thin. Sadly, she also had no sense of smell, so the world of food was entirely unremarkable for her. No one else we knew had sprue, an autoimmune disorder, but it made sense because she had other autoimmune stuff going on too.

In 11th grade I went on a trip to what was then the Soviet Union. I made the mistake of eating something from a street vendor. I got very sick, and the sickness lasted through senior year. Regular ol’ tourist bacteria was quickly ruled out, but when the gastroenterologist found out my grandmother had sprue, he got excited: It skips a generation, he said, and might be the cause of my problems. I underwent endless tests and then a biopsy of my small intestine. The results were inconclusive. But a gluten allergy has very specific symptoms—very. Trust me, you don’t want to know what they are, because they’re related to poop, but they are pretty unmistakable and I had them. The doctor diagnosed sprue.

I was put on a gluten-free diet. In high school, that kind of sucks. It’s hard to go to pizza joints and Burger King with all your friends and be so limited. My parents took me to a celiac sprue support group, and I can only tell you that we laughed all the way home. This was 1985, remember, and the delicious! “cornbread” they served to prove that it wasn’t so bad to be gluten-free was not encouraging. The conversation was unintentionally hilarious.

The weird thing was, I got better. My symptoms disappeared. Then, at my high school graduation party, I unthinkingly plucked a piece of macaroni from a bowl of macaroni salad on the sideboard and popped it into my mouth. As soon as I realized it was gluten, I started to cry. What had I done? I told my mom in a panic and she said she thought it was okay. And it was. Gradually, I introduced gluten back into my diet. And you know what? Nothing happened. From that day to this I’ve been eating gluten and never had a problem again.

Nowadays the mysterious sprue is known as gluten allergy and it’s everywhere. It seems half the people I meet are allergic to wheat, and the allergy has spawned an industry of foodstuffs and cookbooks. (For a funny take on this kind of thing, check out the Allergy Pride Parade on the new season of Portlandia.)

Dealing with allergies of any kind can get you down, but when the allergies pertain to something we do every day—something as fundamental as eating—it can truly be a pain in the ass. Now a new study says it’s rather more serious than that for women. From MedPage Today:

In celiac disease, ingested gluten can damage the surface villi and impede nutrient absorption, but 37% of women with the condition met the clinical threshold for depression on the 20-item Center for Disease Studies Depression Scale, according to Joshua M. Smyth, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, and colleagues.

Moreover, 22% also met the criteria for disordered eating assessed on a 29-item questionnaire, the researchers reported online in Chronic Illness.

Following a gluten-free diet is the usual recommended treatment for celiac disease, however, because of the near ubiquity of gluten in common foods, many patients with the immune disorder have difficulty keeping to their diet.

And even those who do adhere to the diet can remain symptomatic, which can interfere with normal functioning and lead to psychological difficulties.

Unsurprisingly, women who are forced to focus on food due to the disease can get consumed by the worry, and segue into eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Given that eating disorders are frequently about control issues, this makes sense—you have no control over your celiac diet but you exert control otherwise. Also, women who are on the celiac diet have excessive concerns about weight, according to the study. On the other hand, I don’t know one single woman who doesn’t worry about her weight.


Worse celiac symptoms were associated with poorer physical functioning and mental health (P<0.001 for both).

Correlations also were seen between different areas of psychiatric functioning, such as depression and stress (r=0.54, P<0.001), as well as stress and eating concerns (r=0.85, P<0.001).

The average level of depressive symptoms was 14.93, with a cutoff for clinical depression of 16.

The 65 women whose depression scores were at or above the cutoff had worse celiac symptoms (P<0.001), greater stress (P<0.001), lower dietary adherence (P<0.05), and worse quality of life for both physical and emotional domains (P<0.001 for both). ....

The study confirmed that women with celiac disease are at risk for psychiatric distress, implying that screening may be useful and that psychosocial support may be an important aspect to overall care for these patients, they observed.

Lesson to be learned from the study? Women who adhere to the diet and do not obsess about their weight are far less likely to experience depression.

Depression Common in Celiac Disease

liz | 12:15 PM | depression, eating disorders, celiac disease, celiac sprue, depression and gluten, gluten allergy, gluten-free diet

Wendy Love Says:

This is interesting…I think I may have to check it out. Thanks for the great writing. I am just getting back into blogging and have found you again. I will continue to drop by. Thanks

Jan 8 11:30 AM

Joe Says:

I’ve always found it disheartening that so many give little credence to comorbid medical conditions and/or fail to rule out physical illnesses which can be associated with depression where DSM IV, Axis III is for medical or neurological conditions that may influence a psychiatric problem.

Perhaps, one day our brains and and the balance of of our bodies will cease to be considered separate entities.

Jan 10 8:06 AM

Kay Says:

You are back!! I really appreciate your effort. It will take me a few days to catch up with your always informative, fun posts. Have a great weekend!

Jan 13 11:00 AM

Mike Says:

I find it amazing how few people associate diet with mental health and over all well being. Food and liquids are what keep us alive and functioning and when we consume food and drinks we absorb elements of whatever is in there. Some things are good for us and some harm us. It would be helpful for people to take time and figure out what is good and what isn’t.
On the flip side, with all of the genetic engineering and manipulation of food by companies like Monsanto it is difficult to know what’s healthy anymore. Things like corn might seem like a good vegetable to eat, but how do you know if it is really corn or corn with extra stuff inserted into its DNA?

Jan 15 12:49 PM

Brian Says:

It’s wonderful that you realize that not all allergies are the end of a mean. Reintegration is key to finding a new and better avenue. I had the same problem with lactose. I used to be so sick and stopped eating cheese and dairy for many years. After feeling in top form, i started reintroducing cheese slowly. I had no problems. Ten years later no lactose problems.

Allergies just like depression can be transformed. It’s just that the path and struggle seem unbearable.

Great post!!


Jan 19 10:31 AM

Rev. Katie Says:

I eat a gluten free diet, and a diet free of many other things too actually, like sugar and processed foods which you mention in another post a few weeks later than this one. Even if gluten does not always cause me stomach distress, my bipolar disorder always gets worse when I eat it. I don’t think we pay enough attention to how diet affects bipolar disorder because we only look at food allergies from the perspective of if they give you stomach problems or other visible signs of allergy. Diet is the key to managing my illness and works better than any medication ever has.

May 13 12:15 AM

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Women: Gluten Allergy Might Make You Depressed | The Trouble With Spikol…

Dec 12 3:10 AM

Lewis Harrison Says:

Very often gluten allergy is mistaken for low blood sugar. This should be checked with a 6 hour glucose tolerance test

Lewis Harrison – Author of the Kindle ebook, “Healing Depression Naturally”

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