Monday, April 13, 2009

Gluten Sensitivity and Depression

On April 1st an influential government-appointed medical panel urged doctors to routinely screen all American teens for depression — stating that nearly 2 million teens (an estimated 6%) are affected by this debilitating condition.

“Most are undiagnosed and untreated”, said the panel, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which sets guidelines for doctors on a host of health issues. “Evidence shows that detailed but simple questionnaires can accurately diagnose depression in primary-care settings such as a pediatrician's office.”

Wow. Would you want your teenager, or yourself for that matter, to be diagnosed from a questionnaire? What if your child was in a bad mood that day? Would he or she then be labeled as depressed because of the way a few questions were answered?
Personally I would want an accurate lab test to determine why my body was malfunctioning.

Putting aside life circumstances such as a disruptive home life or loss of a loved one, let’s focus on some physical reasons a person can feel depressed.
Let me state clearly that after 20+ years in practice I do not support the “chemical imbalance” or “genetic – it’s in your family so you’re destined to be that way” theories. It has not proven out to have any validity in my experience nor in many of my peers.

After the digestive tract, gluten sensitivity affects the nervous system more than any other system in the body. The effect occurs from inflammation caused by gluten as well as malabsorption.

The immune system of a gluten sensitive individual reacts negatively to the protein gliadin. Due to the structural similarity between gliadin and other bodily proteins, a cross reaction can occur. In this cross reaction the immune system “confuses” one’s own body’s proteins with those of gliadin. This is called cellular mimicry and the result is inflammation due to the body attacking its own tissues.

When such inflammation occurs in the brain and nervous system, a variety of symptoms can occur, including depression. This condition is sometimes called “the brain on fire”.

In a fascinating study examining blood flow to the brain, 15 patients with untreated celiac disease were compared to 15 celiac patients maintaining a gluten-free diet for one year. The findings were these: in the untreated group, 73% had abnormalities in brain circulation by testing while only 7% in the gluten-free group showed any abnormalities. The patients with the brain circulation problems were frequently suffering from anxiety and depression as well.

Interestingly it’s been noted that patients with symptoms involving the nervous system suffer from digestive problems only 13% of the time. This is significant because mainstream medicine equates gluten sensitivity almost exclusively with celiac disease and digestive complaints. So do you think a depressed teen is going to be evaluated for gluten sensitivity especially when he has no digestive complaints?

Absolutely not. But it’s absolutely wrong that he isn’t screened.

Another component of depression and gluten sensitivity looks at malabsorption of protein due to damage of the small intestine caused by gluten. Specifically the amino acid tryptophan can be deficient. Tryptophan is a protein in the brain responsible for a feeling of well-being and relaxation. A deficiency can be correlated to feelings of depression and anxiety.

There is strong evidence to support the association between gluten and depression. While that may only be addressing 40% of the teens afflicted, it’s definitely a good start.

And for the other 60% I would suggest some lifestyle changes: a clean diet of healthy protein, fruits, vegetables and fat along with a stable sleep schedule and exercise would go a long way to improving hormonal balance. I would wager the typical American diet of soda, burgers, fries, pizza and artificial sweeteners could well be responsible for some of the mood changes we see in teenagers.

Many of the opponents of the mandatory screening for teens noted that a recent law was passed giving parity to mental and physical ailments through insurance. It was suggested that better insurance coverage for mental ailments could well be behind the sudden interest in mandatory screenings. I’ll leave you to your own evaluations in that department.

But do keep in mind that there’s a black box warning on antidepressants for children that the FDA mandated several years ago due to the increased number of suicides seen after children were put on these very dangerous drugs.

If you know anyone on these medications, encourage them to seek answers that address the root cause of the problem rather than just masking the symptoms.

I encourage you to spend a few minutes watching the youtube video on our home page here at The video is of a patient who had been depressed since age 16 and arrived into our clinic on 7 different psychotropic drugs after suffering for 30 years. He’s now successfully off all medications and has gotten his zest for life back.

Enjoy the video – it’s quite heartwarming!


Visit us at If you have questions or need any help, I’m here for you! Call 408-733-0400.

I look forward to hearing from you.

To your good health,
Dr Vikki Petersen, DC, CCN, CFMP

IFM Certified Practitioner

Founder of Root Cause Medical Clinic
Co-author of “The Gluten Effect”

Author of the eBook: “Gluten Intolerance – What You Don’t Know May Be Killing You!”


Anonymous said...

Wow. I am speechless. My 4 yr old daughter presented last year with severe anxiety & 2 episodes of 2 wk long preschool depression. She was eventually prescribed Prozac and 95% of her symptoms disappeared; however, her physical complaints have remained: tummy aches, pale skin, poor hunger/picky eater (only eats gluten foods "kid foods", small red painful bumps on elbows, knees and occasionally toe joints, poor sleep habits - trouble getting to sleep without melatonin supplement and can't sleep through night. I just demanded her be tested for celiac yesterday & am awaiting blood results. Could it possibly have all been caused by gluten - I would love to remove the prozac & melatonin from her body! No pediatrician, psychologist, developmental ped. or psychiatrist has ever mentioned anything about gluten. I am mortified about how uninformed the doctors are today. How very sad. We will be going on a gluten free diet regardless of the test results, as I see many are falsely negative. In addition, my husband has many of the same digestive ailments my daughter has, and last month had an unexplainable seizure. How strange that by reading about gluten we may solve two people's problems at once.

Anonymous said...

I'm very curious what the results of the tests are and how your daughter is doing. Hoping for the best.

Anonymous said...

I'm very curious what the results of the tests are and how your daughter is doing. Hoping for the best.

Anonymous said...

Very frustrating that doctors dont seem to know much about how food can cause brain inflammation

Anonymous said...

I suffered from depression from childhood...sometimes very severe. I have Lupus and RA. A nurse friend suggested I stop eating gluten to see if that would decrease inflammation. I stopped eating it immediately. Within 3 days, not only have my inflammation decrease....depression was GONE. Unbelievable. Years of medications and talk therapy and all it took was stopping gluten. A recent visit to a college friend -- she could not believe how upbeat I've become. It really changed my life.

Anonymous said...

As a health care provider and parent, I am shocked and disappointed that a physician would put a 4 yr old child on Prozac. It is not approved for kids that young and he/she did not do their homework helping you look deeper into the cause(s). I'm glad you did on your own. And if gluten isn't the answer, I encourage you to look deeper and find someone else's help.

Anonymous said...

My situation was similar to "Anonymous 11:33 AM". I suffered from terrible depression and anxiety for almost 14 years. Lost jobs, dropped out of a graduate school program, didn't socialize, stayed in bed, and when I wasn't sleeping the day away I was ruminating like crazy. Spent several thousand dollars on CBT and talk therapy and tried about 6 antidepressant/stimulant medications. Nothing worked.

Last spring, I went on a very low carb diet in order to lose weight. Three days later, I woke up and my depression, anxiety, and brain fog that had afflicted me relentlessly for 14 years had literally vanished. I simply couldn't believe it, and still can't to this day. It took me about 2 months to figure out that it was the gluten elimination (and not the carb reduction/fat increase) that accounted for the dramatic improvement in my well-being.

I should note that during these 14 years I never had any digestive, joint, skin, or other allergy problems (only mental health disability).

So I think the issue of gluten sensitivity being linked to depression is very real, but I have no idea how rare or common it is.