For as long as I can remember, I’ve been depressed.  About what, I have no idea.  It’s like there was always a black cloud following me overhead. Nothing in particular was wrong; I have a supportive family, great friends, a nice house and a good career.  What’s there to be depressed about, I thought.  It’s not like I live in a third world country in the middle of a war zone; that would be depressing.

A few years back at the peak of my career, my coworkers and I were so stressed out at work that five out of six of us were taking either an anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication.  We jokingly and affectionately referred to them as our “happy pills.”  But I had always prided myself in being holistic about my health, after all, I majored in nutrition.  So why did I need a pill to make me feel good, particularly one that puts me at a high risk for stroke?  I recalled a few years before having dinner with a friend. A professional chef, he had cooked a delicious dinner for us one evening; broiled sea bass in a light white wine and butter sauce and sautéed kale with garlic.  A simple but elegant dinner that melted in my mouth. About an hour after dinner, I remember thinking “I feel pretty good right now.  Why can’t I feel like this everyday?”  I knew that one of the reasons I felt good was because the fish was loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and there were plenty of healthy phytochemicals in the veggies.  But still, what was I doing wrong?

It wasn’t until I began doing research into the effect of gluten that I realized I am gluten sensitive and this was causing my depression.  Gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat, rye and barley that many people no longer process well.  Over sixty years ago, gluten was much easier to digest because our food supply was different.  Now, thanks to bio-engineering and genetic modification of grains, gluten is no longer biologically compatible with our bodies.  Amazingly, it is estimated that approximately 99 percent of people react negatively to gluten.  Their immune system likely views this new brand of genetically modified grain as a threat.  Being gluten sensitive is a far cry from being allergic to gluten, which is the definition of celiac disease.  But the more I researched, the more I discovered that what I was eating on a regular basis was what was making me feel so bad.

The brain controls how you feel by regulating chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of some of the more common ones before: serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, GABA, and dopamine.  In fact, most antidepressants are selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors or SSRI’s.  They’re designed to maintain a healthy level of serotonin in the body and prevent the brain from reabsorbing it. Ok, so you’re probably wondering what this has to do with gluten.  Well, according to many scientist’s, we have a so-called “second brain” around our intestines.  If your guts aren’t in good shape, neither is the rest of you. It turns out that our intestinal tract manufactures 80 to 90 percent of the body’s serotonin. That’s pretty amazing.  So, if your intestinal tract is not working at optimum capacity or the intestinal lining is being damaged by gluten, you’re not going to be able to maintain healthy levels of serotonin and other feel-good chemicals.

I’ve never had any intestinal problems that I was aware of but figured, what’ve I got to lose by going gluten free?  After weaning myself slowly off my happy pills, I also weaned myself off of gluten.  The effect didn’t occur overnight but it was pretty quick.  In just a couple of weeks, I felt more optimistic.  I stopped feeling moody and angry for no reason.  If something good happened, I felt happy.  If I got bad news, I felt the appropriate response, angry or annoyed, but not like it was the end of the world.

Who ever thought that something as simple as a grain could be the underlying cause of depression? Gluten has also been identified as the culprit of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  My little brother was diagnosed with this when he was about five years old but unfortunately, there was little if any, research into gluten at that time and he was prescribed the typical medication, Ritalin. According to Dr. David Perlmutter, children having ADHD that have been put on gluten free diets, have improved remarkably.  Going gluten free has also been found to have positive effects on children diagnosed with autism and adults with bipolar disease.  Food for thought!

Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter.
What Causes Depression?, Harvard Health Publications.