Gluten has been in the news a lot the past couple of years. Depression and gluten, not so much. I stayed pretty much on the side of the skeptics, considering it yet another fad. Only a rare few people actually have celiac disease, for whom gluten is truly toxic. But a couple of weeks ago my viewpoint got a real jolt, when I heard serious scientific evidence that gluten could cause depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and even dementia. In other words, gluten can be toxic to all our brains.
I am usually averse to calling any new idea a secret, but what else can we call data that has been there for quite a while, but has never seen the light of day? When we suffer from depression or anxiety, we may not want to go running after every new scheme that gets hyped in the media, but we do want to know real information to help us decide for ourselves.
So, I went to the source. Neuroscientist Dr. David Perlmutter, author of The Better Brain Book, has been studying the effects of gluten, sugar, and our high carbohydrate diets on our brain cells for decades. He is also one of those rare physicians who does not consider finding the right pill to be the best care for his patients. Instead, he hunts for causes, so we can stop doing the things that are causing us illness and pain. My kind of doc.
Consider the world we live in today. 20 or so years ago, experts told us to eat less fat, and we listened. The food industry jumped on the idea, and even marketed things like jam as “fat free.” We tried to be healthy, eating lots of whole grains, but diabetes rates in America skyrocketed, and huge numbers of both adults and children are on some sort of medication for mood disorders. And just look around…we are fatter than we have ever been.
In his newest book, The Grain Brain, Dr. Perlmutter explains that even though many of us may not be seriously sensitive to gluten, our bodies were never designed to eat the mountains of grains that exist in our modern diets. Our ancient ancestors gathered grains where they could, but the grains they ate are far different from the plump wheat kernels we mold into breakfast cereals, sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner. Do those three make you think of how you eat? Sadly, they did me.
Our brains, Dr. Perlmutter says, are made up of fat, and if they do not receive enough fats in our diets…even real butter…they cannot function properly, and brain cells even die. I had known for years that sugar can be toxic, but when you’re even a little bit of a sugar addict, like I am, it is much easier to ignore that truth. Without the nourishment of good fats, our brains cannot produce the serotonin and other chemicals that stabilize or raise our moods, or simply help us think straight.
Now, it turns out, the gluten found in wheat, barley, and rye, is just as damaging to brain cells as sugar. We have probably had a clue all along; the word gluten sure sounds a lot like glue. In grade school we probably all made paste out of flour and water. So just imagine what that paste is doing to your brain. Pasta = paste? Think about it.
A starch by any other name
When I was a kid, no moms talked about gluten. That was something for botany class. But everybody’s mother knew about starch, and how it was okay, but not if you ate too much of it. Too much bread, potatoes or corn starch made for an inadequate diet. Lots of people ate bacon and eggs for breakfast, and any starch at dinner existed only alongside meat and one or two green vegetables. It was a satisfying way to eat, and kept most of us active, healthy, and slim.
As processed foods increased in the American diet, we began eating things we didn’t even know were there. I mean, how many people really read the labels closely? If we made gravy from scratch, we knew there was flour in it, because we added it ourselves. But who would expect gluten exists in ketchup? Or that “modified food starch” was added to almost every packaged food sold today? And where there is starch, there is gluten.
Even if we don’t decide to drop bread altogether, we would all be wise to become more aware of exactly what we are eating. It may not be just strangely named chemicals that are doing so much damage to our moods and our overall health.
The depression connection
According to Dr. Perlmutter, research has shown that 52% of people sensitive to gluten also have depression (TGB, p. 164). Most of those studied were people with serious sensitivity and serious depression. So it would make sense that if we are even a little depressed, a little bit of gluten sensitivity could be playing a role in how we feel.
While gluten alone is not the sole cause of depression or anxiety, it does seem to add to other contributing forces. Even serious conditions like schizophrenia have shown improvement with changes in the diet.
Dementia, a very real cause of anxiety
When we are feeling anxious, it is often about worries that we have simply constructed in our minds. Whether we are approaching middle age, or well into it, if we see older family members fighting Alzheimer’s disease, or other forms of dementia, it is painful to watch our loved ones slipping away. At the same time we may worry, “what if it happens to me?” It is hard to drop anxiety about something that is very real.
Dr. Perlmutter cites multiple cases where patients with dementia have experienced dramatic improvement by removing gluten from their diets. In fact, there is new evidence that our brains can grow new cells and synapses, in spite of the long held belief that once brain cells died they were gone for good.
For many of us, the exciting news here, is that correct eating habits can keep our brains sharp, and prevent us from being struck by Alzheimer’s or dementia in the first place.
Dietary changes, Dr. Perlmutter says, are not the only ways to elevate our moods and improve our brain power. He stresses the benefits of aerobic exercise, and also discusses vital nutrients we may need to add in supplement form. These include Vitamin D, the DHA found in Omega 3s, and others. And he mentions the benefits of meditation.
As we have written about many times here, no one solution for depression or anxiety exists in isolation. It is the building of an overall healthy lifestyle that really makes the difference.
These are only a few highlights of Dr. Perlmutter’s research. His book is packed with data, case studies, and the details of his recommended eating plan. Whether we agree with him or not, if depression or anxiety figure in our lives, I think his ideas are definitely worth learning more about.
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