The relationship between celiac disease and mental health doesn’t just involve the stress of a gluten-free lifestyle. Mental health struggles present as symptoms of both celiac disease and of gluten intolerance.
As a result, if you’re struggling with mental health issues, it can be a sign of celiac or gluten sensitivity. Not that celiac or gluten intolerance are causing them, but perhaps worsening them.
Additionally, if you’re struggling with mental health issues, please get help. You shouldn’t have to battle these problems alone.
In this post on celiac disease and mental health, I am going to explore the many ways that celiac disease and mental health are connected.
Before we get into the connection between mental health and celiac disease, we need to understand what celiac is.
Celiac is a serious autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and contaminated foods like oats), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine.
These attacks lead to damage to the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.
This inflammatory response to gluten and related nutrient deficiencies can cause a wide variety of symptoms in people with celiac. From bloating, headaches, constipation, joint pain, bone health complications, infertility, weight gain, weight loss, and more.
This can start at any age, and occur in any body, as long as someone is eating gluten and has the celiac genes. If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems.
Celiac disease can cause mental health symptoms when someone with celiac is exposed to gluten. Some examples of mental health symptoms caused by or conditions worsened by eating gluten with celiac include:
Now some of these mental health conditions may be caused be celiac and the impairment of the vagus nerve. Or, these conditions may be worsened by celiac and gluten expsoure.
That said, many of these conditions or symptoms may resolve as you heal with celiac; only flaring with gluten exposure. And they also might not. Just because you have celiac and one of these symptoms or conditions, does not automatically mean there is a relationship.
But it can be helpful to pay attention to in case there is. Personally, I know my mental health symptoms worsen when I’ve been glutened. But they haven’t gone away as I’ve healed.
So let’s talk about the mental health conditions linked to celiac disease!
First on our list of mental health symptoms linked to celiac is unexplained behavioral problems in children. For example, in a 2019 study conducted on 3,715 children, they found that kids with celiac had unexplained behavior problems before diagnosis. Problems like anxiety and oppositional defiance.
Essentially, celiac symptoms in children don’t always show up as an upset stomach. This is because as seen above, signs of celiac show up in children as anxiety and stubbornness too.
Of note, this is probably one of the largest studies I could find on the relationship between celiac disease and mental health. Evidence that if you’re kid is struggling with managing their emotions, you may want to consider getting them screened for celiac.
ADHD is another mental health condition linked to celiac Do you have celiac and struggle with focusing? I know my ability to focus worsens when I’ve been gluten.
Well, studies are mixed on if there is a connection between ADHD and celiac. For example a relationship was found between the two in a preliminary study on ADHD and celiac disease.
In this study done in 2006, they assessed ADHD symptoms in celiac disease patients before and after going gluten-free. As a result of going gluten-free, the patient’s ADHD symptoms improved.
A small study of 67 adults and children with ADHD done in 2011 found that 10 of the 67 people with ADHD ended up having celiac disease. Which suggested a pretty significant relationship between the two.
And then a 2020 systematic review of 8 research studies on the link between celiac and ADHD found only 3 of the studies found a positive correlation – determining that evidence was inconclusive.
And you could specualte the waters are further muddied because celiac burnout could present a lot like ADHD or many of the other mental health conditions listed in this post. And brain fog, which is common with gluten exposure with celiac could look like ADHD.
Where does that leave us? I don’t think that the relationship between celiac and ADHD can be written off but it definitely needs more research before we can definitively say anything. Petsonally, I know my attention wavers significantly when I’ve been glutened.
Another connection between celiac disease and mental health lies in mood disorders. Take for example this study conducted in Sweden, where they evaluated 13,776 individuals with celiac disease for mood disorders and found a connection between depression and celiac. Other mood related symptoms include irritability, mood swings, and more.
Basically, changes in mood are common in people with celiac. Despite this, they can’t explain the relationship.
Studies suggest it’s related to the reduction of quality of life. In other words, it’s related to lower perceived well-being. I say that definitely plays a role. I might suggest that at least during healing, the vagus nerve may be impacted, thus impacting mood regulation.
Social phobia is another mental symptom of celiac. It’s where socializing brings anxiety. This means that talking with others, attending parties, being in crowds all cause worry.
In a study done on 40 people with celiac, researchers found a higher rate of social phobia. Meaning, worrying about socializing with others is a documented symptom of celiac. However, the reasoning behind this is not understood.
I would argue that much like the reduction of quality of life with celiac can cause mood disruptions, having to live gluten-free in a gluten centered culture could trigger social strain.
Eating disorders are another mental health symptom of celiac. They’re marked by constant thoughts and behaviors around food, exercise, and body size.
There are a lot of risk factors for eating disorders. Many of which are intensified by celiac disease management. Risk factors like broken trust between food and body cues. Additionally, feeling stressed around food can increase eating disorder risk. Lastly, having to follow an extremely restrictive celiac diet play a role too.
And this isn’t anecdotal, it’s proven by research. For example, a large study in Sweden found that women with celiac had a 46% higher rate of anorexia. And that doesn’t include risk for any of the other known eating disorders.
Read more about the connection between eating disorders and celiac disease in this detaled blog post.
Bottom line, celiacs are at high risk for eating disorders. If you’re consumed by thoughts around food, exercise or your body, please seek help.
Another celiac mental symptom includes Anxiety. Anxiety is common in celiac disease. This is because of increased anxiety experienced around food and neuro-cognitive changes triggered by gluten.
In fact, in a study conducted on celiac disease patients experiencing depression and anxiety, researchers found that anxiety was improved after following a gluten-free diet for one year. As a result, if your anxiety is related to celiac, you should see improvement after going gluten-free.
For me for instance, my anxiety definitely worsens with gluten exposure. However, it has not gone away as I’ve healed. Anecdotally, I see the connection.
I might also argue like many other conditions, the impact celiac damage may have on the vagus nerve might help explain the relationship.
Last on the list of celiac mental symptoms is celiac brain fog. Anecdotally, I am often faced with serious brain fog when exposed to gluten. However, it’s not just me. In fact, new research is in overwhelming support that this is real. Not like I need a scientist to tell me what I experience is fact or not.
For instance, a survey from Beyond Celiac found that 89% of celiac participants reported having brain fog. In this study, participants described brain fog as having trouble concentrating, confusion, forgetfulness, detachment, and grogginess.
Sounds very familiar to me… what about you?
Ultimately, mental health symptoms of celiac disease are not fully understood. Additionally, research in this area is relatively new. However, current research proves a connection between mental health and celiac disease.
Due to this proven connection, we need to dig deeper into the lesser known signs of celiac. Luckily, as of July 27th 2021, funding for researchers to investigate neuropathology and psychological impairment of celiac has been granted! Stay tuned for updates in the upcoming years.
Finally, the research shows the need for doctors to notice their bias in screening for celiac. Not all celiacs present with typical gut symptoms.
And if you’re struggling with your mental health and celiac, getting help is imperative. Whether it be working to make managing celiac feel routine to reduce the mental burdens, or avoiding gluten to make sure it’s not worsening any of your symptoms.
If you need help with making living with celiac feel routine, check out my self-paced Celiac Crash Course. Learn more here.