Our blog series on celiac disease continues with a focus on mental health. While the physical symptoms of celiac disease are fairly well recognized, it may surprise you to know that the disorder can also have some serious psychological and emotional consequences.

Celiac Disease Series: Celiac Disease and Mental Health
Celiac Disease Series: Celiac Disease and Mental Health
Graphic by Haydee Vanegas.

One in every 100 people worldwide has celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that can be symptomatic or asymptomatic. To those who are diagnosed, celiac disease is a whole new world to navigate. It is a not-so-common disease that can produce a wide range of symptoms and related ailments. I decided to create a blog series on celiac disease to share my experience living with it, to create awareness of the issue, and to support the larger celiac community.

In recent articles on this topic. I shared some interesting facts about celiac and I talked about my experience living with the disease. Today, I’d like to focus on the mental health aspect of celiac disease.

Living with any disease can have a dramatic impact on one’s mental health. Living with an autoimmune disease means living with the stress of knowing that your condition can get really serious with time. And knowing that there is no cure for celiac disease only adds to the anxiety that many patients feel.

Living With a Disease Affects Mental Health

Living with a disease affects your mental health.
Living with a disease affects your mental health.
Graphic by Haydee Vanegas.

The search for a diagnosis alone can be stress-inducing. Many of us suffer for years, conducting exhaustive research, undergoing dozens of tests, going from one specialist to the next. This period is characterized by uncertainty and fear. With an eventual diagnosis comes a feeling of loneliness. Finally we’ve solved one mystery but now we’re consumed with thoughts about how our lives are now permanently altered.

It is natural to experience anxiety, depressive thoughts, anger, and stress when we learn that we have a disease. The concept of disease is processed by the brain as a dangerous threat. Psychologically, we associate disease with suffering and discomfort. But with celiac disease there is so much more pressure because its symptoms bring daily disruption to our lives.

With that diagnosis comes immediate and dramatic lifestyle modifications related to one of our most basic needs in life. This new existence thrust upon a newly-diagnosed celiac patient is marked by hypervigilance. As celiac disease has no cure, we can only hope to treat its symptoms and that means altering what, how, and where we eat.

Anxiety and hypervigilance are common mental health issues with celiac disease.
Anxiety and hypervigilance are common mental health issues with celiac disease.
Graphic by Haydee Vanegas.

This need for constant awareness brings feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and despair. These emotions can lead to burnout, stress, and mood disorders. It is common for people with celiac disease to experience symptoms of paranoid personality disorder. But it’s not just the stress of rearranging our lives that can cause mental health issues among celiacs, there are also physiological effects caused by accidental gluten ingestion.

Celiac Disease and Mental Health Issues

Celiac disease and mental health issues.
Celiac disease and mental health issues.
Graphic by Haydee Vanegas.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, people with celiac disease are at a higher risk for mental health issues. Interestingly, this effect has a physiological origin. The small intestine is lined with enterochromaffin cells, which are responsible for producing more than 90% of the body’s serotonin. This neurotransmitter regulates our mood and is often referred to as our “happiness hormone.”

People with celiac disease have damage in their small intestine and this affects their mental health. Because of this damage, their intestine loses villi and enterochromaffin cells and their bodies don’t make enough serotonin. This is a physiological basis for a range of mental health issues. For example, serotonin is a key neurotransmitter in anxiety disorders and depression.

According to the National Institute of Health, over 22% of people with celiac disease develop mental health issues, with symptoms ranging from ataxia, epilepsy, seizure disorders, and gluten encephalopathy. In children, celiac disease can have mental health complications in the form of attention deficits and hyperactivity disorders. All of this results from the increase in the antibodies produced in celiac disease.

Most people with celiac disease develop mental health issues as symptoms or complications.
Most people with celiac disease develop mental health issues as symptoms or complications.
Graphic by Haydee Vanegas.

Mental Health Issues As a Symptom of Gluten Ingestion

Mental health issues and mood disorders can also be a symptom of gluten ingestion. With celiac disease, it is common to mistakenly ingest gluten. This most often happens when we eat food that is not gluten-free certified. After having been on a gluten-free diet for awhile, it is easy to determine if we have been exposed to gluten. But even though most symptoms are physical—diarrhea, vomiting, stomach discomfort—it is important to know that mental health issues are also a symptom of gluten ingestion.

I have personally experienced mental health issues along with some of the more common physical symptoms. When I eat gluten, my anxiety levels increase and I generally experience panic attacks. The last time I mistakenly ingested gluten, I had a situational depressive episode. Other common symptoms of gluten ingestion include insomnia, migraines, vertigo, and brain fog.

Mental health issues can be symptoms of gluten ingestion in those with celiac disease.
Mental health issues can be symptoms of gluten ingestion in those with celiac disease.
Graphic by Haydee Vanegas.

The important thing to realize with celiac disease and mental health is that our bodies express our experience in both physical and mental ways. Our mental health can tell us a lot about celiac disease and gluten ingestion. That is why we need to take everything into account if we want to get and stay healthy. Along with that, it is crucial for those with celiac disease to remember that, as with any disease, there can be serious mental health effects.

If you have celiac disease, take the time to assess your mental health, including changes to mood. Not only can it be a symptom, but it can result from living with the disease. And before things get tricky, it is better that you seek help. If you need anything, I am here. Please leave your questions in the comments section below. Stay tuned for much more as our celiac disease series continues.