Many people are trying a gluten-free diet to see if it helps them lose weight or feel better.Those who are gluten intolerant find that this type of diet is beneficial for them.
But National Celiac Disease Awareness Day on September 13, 2013 draws attention to a select group of people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, which means they truly cannot eat gluten without their body suffering in various ways, including mental health side effects.
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness website, celiac disease is an autoimmune and digestive disorder. In this disorder, gluten consumption leads to an immune response that causes damage to the small intestine, leading to problems with nutrient absorption.
The foundation estimates that 1 in 141 Americans have the condition, but numbers may be higher because an estimated 83 percent who have celiac disease don’t know it, or they’ve been misdiagnosed.
Because a growing number of people are suffering, it’s important to understand how the disease affects every aspect of life.
Trudy Scott, a certified nutritionist and author, said in an email that celiac disease and gluten intolerance could cause negative mental health side effects.
She said there is research linking celiac disease to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, social anxiety and schizophrenia. She noted that over 80 percent of her clients show improvement from depression and anxiety when they go on a gluten-free diet.
Many food companies are catching on, but Scott warned that not all gluten-free food is healthy. She said that if you want to avoid processed gluten-free foods, stick to “real whole food.”
Although it can be mentally tough to part with favorite foods containing gluten, it improves the lives of people with celiac disease to go on a gluten-free diet.
“Once you start to feel better again it won’t seem so difficult – you’ll feel empowered and thankful that you actually have control,” Scott said.
She said that using amino acid supplements temporarily can help with the cravings and emotional attachment to foods you have to give up.
Alicia Clark, a licensed clinical psychologist, said in an email that she has a daughter with celiac disease.
“At a time when most of us would reach for our favorite comfort carb, celiac patients have to resist and instead bid farewell forever,” Clark said. “This adjustment is extremely challenging for patients and families alike.”
She said that it’s perfectly normal for people who just received a diagnosis of celiac disease to feel sad, scared and “out of sorts,” because it requires a major life adjustment.
“Try at the same time to focus on the positive aspects of the situation,” Clark said. “For example, the relief you feel of finally having an answer, having a solution, and a non pharmacological treatment.”
Patience is key, since habits take about a month to form, and it can be tough to completely clean out your kitchen, learn new recipes, and find new restaurants.
“Change is hard, but not impossible if you break it into small pieces, build structure, ask for helpful support from family and friends, and stick with it,” Clark said. “One day at a time.”
She said that after about six weeks if you’re still having some issues coping, it could be beneficial to work with a mental health professional.
“If all this seems like too much, take heart but also take action,” Clark said.
“Not only will the diet likely improve your mental health symptoms over time, but just the simple act of taking charge and taking action builds resiliency and self-esteem.”
Elizabeth Van Arsdall, the 13-year-old daughter of Alicia Clark, said in an email that it was disheartening for her to learn of her diagnosis, since all of her favorite foods contained gluten.
She found out she had the condition after she broke her back, was unable to stay focused in class and felt fatigued. Her mother took her to the doctor and had her get a blood test, which started the diagnosis process.
“I was so upset after I found out that I went downstairs, told myself it was all in my head, and had a regular brownie,” Van Arsdall said. “But I was just hurting myself.”
She said her parents have helped her cope with the condition by being supportive and buying many gluten-free desserts so she could pick out her new favorites.
She has received support from family and friends, but she said her dog helped her cope a lot with her new diagnosis. Laughing also helps. She has also grown more positive about the condition, especially after finding that most of her favorite foods do have a gluten-free alternative.
National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. What is Celiac Disease? Web. September 11, 2013.
Celiac Sprue Association. Celiac Awareness Day. Web. September 11, 2013.
Scott, Trudy. Email interview. September 10, 2013.
Clark, Alicia. Email interview. September 11, 2013.
Van Arsdall, Elizabeth. Email interview. September 11, 2013.
Reviewed September 12, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith