The gluten-free movement has been a major dietary trend in recent years, with many Americans opting to cut out gluten completely.
A protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, gluten is especially harmful to some people: For those with celiac disease, eating it can cause inflammation and damage the small intestines. But some say that even if you don’t have celiac disease, going gluten-free can help relieve symptoms of depression.
So can it? Well, the scientific evidence is sparse, and experts haven’t yet reached a consensus. Here’s what you should know before going gluten free to relieve depression symptoms.
Does a Gluten-Free Diet Treat Depression?
Skeptical experts are hesitant to endorse the gluten-free diet as a mood booster. “There is little to no good evidence for this concept,” says Sheila Crowe, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and the vice president of the American Gastroenterological Association.
Her opinion isn’t unique: Alan Manevitz, MD, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital who treats patients with mood disorders, also cites the lack of evidence that a gluten-free diet can alleviate depression.
Instead of cutting out gluten, these experts say that you should focus on eating a healthy diet in general. “My go-to diet for patients without specific disease is a healthy Mediterranean diet,” says Dr. Crowe. This meal plan includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, lean protein, nuts, legumes, and some wine.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in many staples of the Mediterranean diet, can have a calming effect, says Dr. Manevitz. OneApril 2015 study in the journal Mental Illness found that when people over 65 took omega-3 supplements, they saw a reduction in their major depression symptoms after 12 weeks.
Can Going Gluten-Free Still Help?
Perhaps. Experts in the gluten-free camp — like David Johnson, MD, professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk — say that there’s some evidence that gluten may cause depression in patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. (For the record, experts also debate whether non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists, says Emily Deans, MD, a psychiatrist and clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.)
But some research suggests that the bacteria in the gut can affect both mood and behavior, Dr. Johnson says. “Eating gluten may change the bacteria in the gut,” and that, in turn, could potentially change behavior, he says.
In a May 2014 study in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, people with irritable bowel syndrome reported better moods when they weren’t eating gluten, despite their continuing gastrointestinal symptoms.
Studies like this one are rare, but there’s also anecdotal evidence. Dr. Deans allows her depression patients to go gluten-free — assuming they’re taking any medications they’ve been prescribed and are participating in therapy, if needed. She believes that “gluten seems to irritate the immune system in some people,” even in those without celiac disease.
But there’s one thing all these experts would agree on: the need for a healthy diet. Simply eliminating gluten is not enough, says Deans. “I don’t think a gluten-free muffin is any healthier than a regular muffin,” she says.
Instead, if you’re depressed you should focus on eating “clean, whole food,” which has been linked to depression relief, Deans says.
How to Cut Out Gluten
Talk to your doctor first about the best approach. Eating gluten-free means including plenty of fruits and vegetables and some meat and eggs in your diet, says Deans. She notes that you may not want to suddenly switch out all of your gluten-containing rice and pasta for the gluten-free kinds.
And keep in mind that eliminating gluten may not help right away. Some patients see a difference in their mood around the two- to four-week mark, while others may not notice a change until after at least 30 days, she says.
Another point on which experts agree: If you suspect that eating gluten affects either your mood or GI tract, talk to your doctor about being tested for celiac disease.