Gluten and anxiety: is bread making my mental health worse?

Gluten and anxiety – sounds like a ridiculous title, doesn’t it? Fear not, friends, I’m not going all Gwyneth at GOOP on you… Bear with me here, this is just what I’ve observed.

Sometimes, when you go looking for answers, you find out something you didn’t necessarily want to know.

Don’t worry – I haven’t been snooping through my boyfriend’s phone. What I have been searching for is an answer to some on-going health problems I’ve had for a few years now. Sore joints, swollen ankles, lethargy – even stuffed sinuses. I won’t harp on about how many times I’ve been to see a GP about all of these things in isolation over the years, only to be brushed off. The long and short of it is this: I’m gluten intolerant. A sufferer of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), to be precise.

Goodbye, bread, beers and pie 

Sigh. ‘Beer’, ‘pies’ and ‘battered meats’ are all up there in my most beloved things in the world. And don’t get me started on bread; I can actually take or leave a cake, but seriously, I fucking love a baguette. I’d choose a hot, fresh French baguette, dripping in butter, over a fancy meal on six days out of seven. So this whole ‘gluten intolerance’ thing is a real shame for me and my penchant for beige foodstuffs.

Fortunately, being gluten free in London isn’t hard: the weekend before last I ate two gluten free pizzas, gluten free focaccia smothered in Italian cheese, a few pints of Daura (probably the best gluten free beer) and then a rib-eye steak in a French restaurant with no specifically gluten free options (hardly a sacrifice.) I also live in Islington, land of the yummy mummy, so my gluten free bakery options are on point (hit up Beyond Bread next time you’re on Upper Street, my fellow Londoners).

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And of course, it’s all worth it, because my symptoms have disappeared. I’m no longer cripplingly tired all the time (just some of the time) and I can actually see the bones in my feet properly, after a life time of assuming that I did, in fact, just have cankles.

But something else has happened, too. Something I definitely wasn’t expecting. The physical symptoms of my anxiety – an unsettled heartbeat, a low-level feeling of dread, a churny stomach, a strange veil-like feeling of being not quite present in the world – have all… basically disappeared.

Is there a link between gluten and anxiety? 

Now, I’ve heard of there being a link between coeliac and anxiety before, but this was more from people becoming (understandably) incredibly anxious about eating gluten and then promptly shitting it out/being violently ill, rather than a knock-on effect. But that isn’t the case with me – while having sore joints and feeling unreasonably tired is quite annoying, I’m hardly fearful of it.

Is it psychosomatic? Am I just imagining it? That’s what everyone asks me – it’s probably what I’d ask myself, so I do understand. But I know myself, my body and my state of mind pretty bloody well. After all these years of tinkering with my self-care, I’m like some sort of weird, expert mechanic who can spot and fine tune a problem in the motor from the moment it turns on. And despite not taking very good care of my body recently (oops) my anxiety has definitely improved substantially since I said sayonara to sandwiches, sausage rolls and sweet, sweet pastry.

But what’s science got to say about gluten and anxiety? 

I’m a prolific Googler, so I did what I always do, and starting tapping away. Does gluten cause anxiety? Is there a link between gluten and anxiety? Can gluten make me sad? And so on. It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t alone. Turns out there’s a whole host of people who have noticed a substantial mood and anxiety improvement after going gluten free.

Meanwhile, ‘attempts to characterise NCGS have shown that these systemic manifestations (tiredness, headache, fibromyalgia-like joint or muscle pain, leg or arm numbness, ‘foggy mind,’ dermatitis or skin rash, depression, anxiety, and anaemia) may be common’. The trouble is, this is by no means a full scientific endorsement. There isn’t enough proof. There isn’t enough research. So I’m by no means advocating everybody to cut out gluten as an anxiety cure-all.

But I can’t be the only one. Anybody else have any experience of this? Or other foods that make your anxiety bad, for that matter?

It’s all very interesting and I’ll definitely be looking into further. Because who knows – maybe I’m just having a freakishly calm few months, and I’ll wake up for a slice of gluten free toast one day with the same old crushing existential despair I always had. But so far, giving up the gluten has been revolutionary for my physical and mental health – even if I do miss baguettes every damn day.

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