In the other blog posts in this series (read Part 1, 2, and 3) , we have seen how wheat can affect our blood sugar, metabolism, and immune system. In this post I wanted to discuss something that was VERY surprising to me when I first learned about it, how much gluten can affect our minds.
I was a psychology major in college (before I went back to school to become a dietitian) and my interest in psychology and health remains (I even thought about doing a PhD in health psychology). I have seen that many patients struggling with mental illnesses (bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, etc), who also had issues with diet and weight. I would say that when I worked with the pre-gastric bypass population about 50% (or maybe even more ) of those patients struggled at some point with anxiety, depression, or other psychological disorders. I always thought that the mental issue was affecting the diet (overeating, under eating, binges, sugar cravings, etc), and never really thought that maybe the diet was contributing to the mental illness. That is until I heard Nora Gedgaudas speak at the Ancestral Health Symposium. Nora’s talk discussed how blood sugar regulation is key regulating the endocrine and nervous system, controlling our hormones, emotions and behavior. Surges in blood sugar are destabilizing because of the effect it has on insulin, leptin, and other hormones, stimulating over-arousal and exacerbating anxiety-related issues. Remember the effect that wheat has on our blood sugar due to its high content of amylopectin?
But, its not just the blood sugar surges that contribute to the mood swings, depression, anxiety, etc, its the actual gluten itself. Gluten polypeptides have been found to penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Once gluten is in the brain, it attaches to morphine receptors, the same as opiates. It has also been found that the drug naloxone (used to reverse the action of heroin and other opiates) blocks the binding of gluten to the brain’s morphine receptors. When naloxone was given to “normal” subjects (blocking the opiate effect of gluten), they consumed approximately 400 fewer calories from carbohydrate sources. Consumption of wheat can therefore lead to a mild feeling of euphoria and when it is not consumed, people can experience withdrawal.
Nora, in her practice, has seen significant improvement in mental illnesses by using a gluten-free, Paleo diet approach in combination with therapy and biofeedback. If you are struggling with depression/anxiety or other mental issues, it may be worth a shot. For more information, there are several testimonials about anxiety, depression, and the Paleo diet on Robb Wolf’s site.