Did you know that there are 55 diseases caused or made worse by eating gluten? Among them, depression and anxiety. It’s pretty scary that gluten is able to spoil your quest for happiness, but it makes sense when you dig deeper.
I’m sure when you think of mood you think of the brain and all of the chemicals it produces. Well, I’ll bet you didn’t know that most of your body’s “happy chemicals” are found in the gut. That’s right, there’s actually a “brain” in your gut, and it contains 90% of your body’s serotonin and 50% of your dopamine. First, let’s look at what serotonin and dopamine are responsible for.
Happy Chemicals: Serotonin and Dopamine
Serotonin is created in the brain, and it is a key regulator of mood, encouraging feelings of happiness. It is normally suppressed by stress, and low serotonin levels result in many undesirable mental side effects:
- Chronic fatigue
- Low self-esteem
- Low sex drive
- Social withdrawal
- Low focus and concentration
Dopamine is another chemical in the brain that promotes feelings of happiness and pleasure. It is the lead chemical involved in the reward circuit of the brain. The happiness you feel when biting into a donut is caused by a release of dopamine. A low level of dopamine also has serious mental side effects:
- Incurable boredom
- Loss of satisfaction
- Decreased motivation
- Chronic fatigue
- Mood swings
What’s with This Brain in the Gut, and Why Haven’t I Heard of It?
The “brain of the gut” is called the enteric nervous system, which is embedded in the sheaths of tissue lining the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. It contains 100 million neurons, which is more than the spinal cord contains. This gut brain is connected to your head brain, so to say, but it can still function on its own as well.
Don’t believe me? What kind of feeling do you get when you are in a stressful or high anxiety situation. “Butterflies” in the stomach! If the gut and the brain weren’t connected, how do blood and disgusting sights make a person nauseous? Or how about people getting a lump in their throat when they feel sad? The throat is part of the gut brain and its nerves are highly stimulated with sad emotions.
Hopefully, you’re convinced now so that I can tell you how gluten comes into play with all of this. As you are probably starting to piece together, gluten causes a bunch of damage and inflammation in the gut in sensitive individuals, and, of course, that affects your gut brain. Your levels of serotonin and dopamine are reduced, and you may feel a mental fog, lack of motivation, depression, and anxiety.
Study on the “second brain” is only starting to begin, which is why most people are surprised to hear that they have a complex system of neurons right underneath their bellies. New studies are being performed on the exact relationship between the dopamine and serotonin found in the gut to your mood, and as you know, studies take a lot of time.
Other Gluten Mood-Altering Mechanisms
Vitamin Deficiencies and Decreased Healthy Gut Bacteria
As you now know, gluten intolerances and celiac disease are also one of the main causes of leaky gut. Leaky gut means that there are leaks in the gut that allow harmful particles like undigested food and toxins to get into your bloodstream, which sends the body on full alert, triggering an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response responds to the “foreign objects” in your blood and things like nutrient absorption and utilization take a backseat.
What’s more is that gluten decreases the number of healthy gut bacteria that you need to absorb vitamins; therefore, less of your essential nutrients are making their way to your blood, which results in deficiencies. Vitamin deficiencies of all kinds can cause negative mental side effects. Such vitamins include vitamin D, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. Even taking a multivitamin wouldn’t help simply because your small intestine wouldn’t absorb them anyway.
This is why it’s highly recommended for people trying to overcome the damage of gluten to take probiotics and eat highly fermented foods. Doing so will speed up the healing process and fill your gut with a better balance of healthy bacteria.
When you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, your body’s immune system attacks its own tissues, which causes whole body inflammation. This inflammation reaches the brain and interferes with its ability to produce serotonin and dopamine, ultimately causing us to feel down or always tired.
Yet another way that gluten is a happiness hunter is the way it can lead to openings in the blood-brain barrier. When gluten intolerance or celiac disease causes “leaky gut,” a protein called zonulin is released. Zonulin is the one responsible for damaging and opening the gut and causing the leaks, and when it gets to the blood-brain barrier, it opens up the protective lining there as well. This activates the brains glial cells, the brain’s immune cells, and they are on full alert, essentially causing a “leaky brain.” Once the glial cells have been awakened, it’s not easy to turn them off, and this inflammation can lead to any problems of the brain. Also, this inflammation causes the connection between the brain and the gut brain to weaken, impairing gut function and causing a vicious cycle of inflammation.
Summing It Up!
As you can see, there could very well be a link between gluten and depression; and also causes all kinds of mood alterations that can cause you to go through life feeling like there’s always a cloud following you around. Little do most people know it’s not something above them, like an imaginary cloud of sadness, but it’s what they put inside their bodies. Many people who have gone gluten-free have reported very positive changes in mental health, so if you are experiencing any of the “gluten blues” as well as the other symptoms of gluten intolerance or celiac disease, you should commit to a gluten-free diet and see what it can do for you.