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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Recovering from anxiety: a work in progress

Are you ever really recovered from a mental health problem like anxiety?

I’d be interested to hear what everyone else thinks about recovery from anxiety? Once upon a time, I would have liked to think it was. I was quite young when I first seriously started to acknowledge that my brain wasn’t working like it should. My only frame of reference for illness was all the other ailments I’d had in my life – like swine flu (no, really) or a kidney infection. Horrible, but ultimately surmountable.

After all, my anxiety did ‘go away’, at various point. And if we’re judging ‘recovery’ from the baseline of ‘being suicidal’, then you could argue I’ve been recovered for well over three years.

Except, except. I’ve never been that bad again, granted – but anxiety has always found ways to creep back in. Which seems pretty bloody unfair – surely after all the counselling, and the sertraline, and the soul-searching/life-changing, I could just enjoy being better?

Sadly not. While I don’t love the ‘mental illness is like a broken leg’ analogy, I have realised that for me, anxiety is a bit like asthma; I have an active part to play in managing it, and probably will do for the rest of my life. My asthma got a hell of a lot better once I quit smoking (shock). It got worse again when I moved into a mouldy damp basement flat in North London. It got better when I got fit(ish).

My actions impact my health. It’s not fair that I have dodgy lungs, but bemoaning that fact won’t change the truth.

It follows logically, then, that anxiety might not be something I can recover from entirely – but it is something I can manage. I’m starting to think there’s a sort of happiness to be found in accepting this. Because accepting it means accepting a lifelong management approach.

And when I manage my health effectively, I can wake up and spring out of bed in the morning, going about my life with nary a worried thought in my head.

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Turns out some downward dogs don’t cancel out 6 cocktails… but we can only try. 

Managing anxiety: my 5 must-dos

  1. Get outside regularly, even if it’s cold.
  2. Limit my alcohol intake, even though I love booze.
  3. Sleep enough, even when people laugh at me for being a Granny.
  4. Exercise enough, even though I hate it, and would rather be on the sofa watching Mad Men.
  5. Listen to Headspace every night – I’m not going to call in meditating because I usually fall asleep four minutes in, but I’ve trained my mind to associate it with relaxing, and it seems to work.

It’s taken me a surprisingly long time to work out what this list should look like. And then I wasted more time ignoring it, because I love drinking, and late nights doing wild things with friends, and not exercising. But I hate being anxious more, and if this active management is what it takes to keep it at bay, I guess I better suck it up. Is it fair? No. But you can’t change that, so there’s not a lot of point in worrying about it any more.

Because for me, recovery isn’t an endpoint. It’s getting up every day, facing your demons, taking care of yourself, and remembering that you deserve to be happy.

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Keeping anxiety at bay: a 4 step mini-guide

  1. Over the course of a week, spend time noting down what makes you anxious. Even if you suffer from a general sense of dread, there’s usually triggers – whether that’s alcohol, lack of sleep, a social interaction, or something else. (PS., if you can, share this process with someone: staring down the barrel of what makes you feel bad can be quite triggering, but I do think it’s a necessary part of changing your life for the better.)
  2. Pick the one that seems most manageable to deal with and write down how it makes you feel and why it’s a part of your life.
  3. If it’s something you can stop doing, like drinking, try cutting it for two weeks and see if you feel an improvement. My advice is to only cut one thing at a time – don’t give up smoking, drinking and sugar in the same week; it’s a recipe for rebounding. (Also, don’t give up sugar: pudding is great).
  4. If it’s something you can confront, like a social interaction, get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Rip the plaster off! 90% of anxiety for me is thinking about the thing – the thing itself is rarely that bad.

What do you think – is recovery an endpoint or an ongoing process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and let me know if you have any good tips for keeping anxiety at bay!

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