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How Food Sensitivities Create Mental Health Diagnoses

This article was originally published at Diets In Review on August 7, 2012. I have updated it slightly with further explanation and research, as well as fixing a few typos

I cheated on my gluten-free diet. Now I can share with my clients in my nutrition classes and presentations the symptoms of gluten sensitivity from experience, not just research. I chose to be gluten and wheat free upon hearing that all wheat in the United States was genetically modified. I prefer to avoid genetically modified foods. When I read Wheat Belly, it was clear that gluten certainly had other impacts on the brain and body, and some people’s behavioral and mental health diagnoses could be a result of a gluten sensitivity of which they were unaware.

After giving up wheat and gluten for several months but not being very cautious, I had been much more strict in the last several weeks. If I do not naturally have a tendency toward gluten sensitivity, I had now created a situation in which my body would be sensitive to this new item in the diet. (After more time and research, I believe my body always had a sensitivity/allergy to gluten but I had become acquainted with the symptoms so much that I ignored them, just like you might not hear a slight buzzing sound after sitting in a room with it for several minutes. Once I eliminated wheat and gluten from my body entirely, I was able to cleaerly see the impact that it was having.) It is said to determine if you have a sensitivity or allergy to any food you should eliminate it from your diet for at least three weeks and then cautiously introduce it back into your diet to notice any symptoms. (Three weeks is probably minimal. A more ideal elimination would be 6-8 weeks, but if 3-4 weeks is what you can handle, it is a great place to start.)

Sunday night, I cheated on the gluten-free diet. My dreams were a bit chaotic, but Monday morning I noticed plenty of energy. After my run, I noticed a bit of a rash on my neck but I assumed it was just heat. I also noticed some very minor asthmatic symptoms which I thought were odd since I had finished the run and usually breath better after running. When I realized the rash had not gone away even after I had cooled down several hours later, I consulted my friend and allergy advisor Heather who was gracious enough not to say “I told you so,” even after my rash had spread on Tuesday.

Wheat-Induced Energy

Does your kid have excess energy because he or she eats wheat? It is very possible. Even after my run this morning, I felt ready for an aerobics class. The problem with wheat, though, is that the energy is not long lasting. Your body will crash, which is why you want some sort of wheat product with every meal or snack. Granted, as a therapist, I am certainly more tuned into how I feel physically and emotionally then many people; however, this is the closest to hypomania I have ever felt. I can certainly now see how wheat could contribute to the list of mental health diagnoses described in Wheat Belly.

While extra energy may sound appealing, it is not a predictable reaction. Heather has told me how her daughters, when unintentionally exposed to gluten, can have reactions on either end of the continuum; the same daughter may be hyperactive in response to gluten at one exposure and overly tired in response at the next exposure. Your reaction could include constipation or diarrhea; it truly is a gamble. I might not have needed coffee today, but I might need more than coffee the next time.

Food Avoidance for Mental Health

Avoiding certain foods may not be a dietary change that everyone is willing or able to take on. However, for certain symptoms or mental health diagnoses there are certain food items that may be a factor. An elimination diet can reveal whether or not this can make a difference for you (or your child). Wheat/gluten may play a role in ADHD, irritability, or autism spectrum disorders. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) may play a role in hyperactivity, aggression, mood swings, and learning difficulties. Soy sensitivity may play a role in ADHD, learning disabilities, and thyroid problems. Aspartame may play a role in headaches, hyperactivity, depression, anxiety, and irritability. Food dyes may play a role in irritability, aggression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Each of us has a unique system with different sensitivities. What works for me may not work for you, but if you are having consistent struggles with any of these symptoms in yourself or your child, adjusting your diet may have powerful results. I certainly think it is worth trying to eliminate an item for a few weeks to see the results. Clients who have done so have made joyful reports of amazing changes. Personally, I would much rather address such issues through dietary change rather than medication.

In this blog I refer to Wheat Belly which is a book I had recently read. Since then, I have read several other books which I would recommend. On this topic specifically Healthier without Wheat is another helpful text. 

If you would be interested in learning more about how food may be impacting the  emotional health, behavior, and/or physical heatlh of your family, I can make individual appointments or speak to your group. Please do not hesitate to contact me!

 

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