Health And Wellness

How Going Gluten-Free Cured My Depression

Photo: RossHelen / Shutterstock
woman eating salad

Bagels can’t actually make you sad, can they?

I used to crave bagels when I was depressed and would eat more during these times in an attempt to feel better, almost as if they were my personal depression cure. I truly believed that having this minor satisfaction would help me.

Little did I know that I was actually promoting and prolonging my depression — and that later, I would discover how to cure my depression naturally by adopting a gluten-free diet.

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I have been depressed since my early teens. I was diagnosed with Major Depression (the big “D”) in my late 20s and went on medication in the hopes of controlling my feelings.

Depression and all its feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness and helplessness have defined my life: It has defined my career (I am a psychotherapist), my social life, and my relationships.

But most importantly, it was how I defined myself. I was the depressed girl, and later the depressed wife and mother. 

I never had the typical "I can’t get out of bed" depression. But I had enough of the symptoms that, to any mental health professional, I sure looked depressed.

Plus, I had early childhood trauma and had lost my father at a young age, so it just made sense that I would be depressed.

On bad days, I felt like I was walking through tar — everything was in slow motion and I felt weighed down. Everything took tremendous effort. Conversations with friends and colleagues who wanted to connect and chat felt like insurmountable hurdles. I had no energy and it took tremendous effort just to animate my face.

I could not concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. I physically ached, especially my hips and leg bones. I would also cry unexpectedly, and sometimes uncontrollably.

This was not good for anyone involved — not me, and especially not my marriage. My husband, while supportive, was as tired as I was.   

And then... something changed.

While on a fad, no-wheat diet with my husband, my depression evaporated. Was my depression suddenly cured?

The depression lifted so much that I began having jittery side effects that my psychiatrist had warned would happen if I took too much of my medication.

Of course, I did not believe this and promptly went to see a cardiologist, convinced that I was having heart issues. I assumed that I felt better because of the weight loss or maybe because it was sunny that week.

It took almost a year of experimenting with not eating wheat before I made the connection that wheat might be causing my feelings.

Everything I knew about depression from growing up as that depressed girl, everything I knew from being a depressed patient, as well as everything I knew as an experienced psychotherapist treating depression, led me to "know" that depression was not impacted by food.

It was not that simple. I "knew" that my depression was a complicated mix of my biology, my history, my thoughts, and my relationships. It was not my food.

Except that every time I ate a bagel, I felt sad.

It took me a year to be able to conceptualize what wheat-free would look like as a lifestyle. Wheat was such a large part of my diet: cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, pretzels for a snack and pasta for dinner. What else was there to eat?

For the first six months of this experiment, I was far from gluten-free. At most, I was gluten-light.

About once a week, I would bump into some cookies or a delicious dessert that needed eating, and I would oblige. Then, I would feel terrible.

But I thought a totally gluten-free diet was impossible — especially since I was a mother of two beautiful, doughnut-loving girls.

After I stopped eating wheat regularly, I could really feel the impact it had on me when I did treat myself.

I would get lightheaded, develop a sore stomach (it felt like my food would not digest), and I could feel my face go slack. It was as if all the troubles in the world suddenly occurred to me.

And after a few days off of wheat, I would feel normal again. I didn’t experience euphoria — it was just calm happiness and comfort in my body.

This not only helped me in my personal life but when I was feeling good, everyone else was feeling good, too. Happy wife, happy life, right? 

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One day it occurred to me that I might be able to come off my medication.

(Yes, it took me this long to even consider the possibility that maybe wheat didn’t make my depression worse, but perhaps it WAS my depression.)

Maybe all I had was a wheat sensitivity.

I committed to going completely gluten-free and worked with my psychiatrist on a plan to come off my medication slowly. My husband was very nervous about this experiment, especially since he'd seen me at some of my lowest points.

I, too, was terrified. I had not been off my medication for 15 years, except during my pregnancies. And I experienced pretty severe postpartum depression following each birth. But I took a deep breath and jumped.

And then... nothing. 

No withdrawal from the meds. No depressive symptoms. No hopelessness. No feeling like I was the worst person in the world. No aching joints. No crying uncontrollably. No feelings of wanting to crawl into bed and hide from the world. No thoughts of hurting myself.

No depression.

This nothing was the MOST AMAZING FEELING IN THE WORLD. It was as if a miracle had occurred. This thing that I had battled, medicated, cried about, beaten myself up over, raged at, ignored, and finally accepted as fact was gone. Just gone.

I have now been gluten-free for a year. I am also depression-free and medication-free. I don’t think that I ever had depression.

I think that there were times when I was depressed (little "D") over losses and breakups, but I believe that my symptoms of Depression (big “D”) were actually symptoms of my food sensitivity.

My lack of depression has caused me to redefine who I am, and this journey of definition will continue for a while. My non-depression has also greatly influenced how I work with depression in my clients.

Depression exists, and most people who suffer from it do not have food sensitivities as the cause. However, there are those people, like me, who battle against themselves and their "depression" for years, unable to make any real changes because they do not have depression.

My main goal is to educate my clients about all the possibilities for their feelings of depression, anxiety, or sadness. This includes food sensitivities, diet deficiencies, past traumas, loss, biology or parenting. Through education, they can make the best decisions for how they treat their own depression. 

Many of you might be asking, "How in the world can a bagel make you sad?"

Well, I have done a great deal of research about this and will do my best to explain the two theories that made the most sense to me.

The first theory came from Dr. Richard Hedaya at Whole Psychiatry in Bethesda, Maryland. He has a wonderful book, The Antidepressant Survival Guide, and a great website. From him, I learned that when you have food sensitivity, your body views that food as a foreign substance and attacks it.

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The body’s main defense is its army of white blood cells. In order to create white blood cells, the body pulls the necessary amino acids from the most easily accessible source — the brain. The resulting feeling is lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, flatness in feelings, and headaches. The same feeling you get when you begin coming down with the flu.

This is exactly what happens to me when I eat wheat. This feeling is what I mislabeled as depression.

The second theory is from Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, From this very informative and very frightening book, I learned that the wheat we eat today is very different from the wheat that grew on the Earth a few hundred years ago. Wheat has been genetically modified to such a degree that is almost indigestible by many humans.

This explains my stomach aches. In his book, Dr. Davis relays case studies of the many health issues he feels are directly related to wheat consumption.

One fact that I found truly frightening is that this "new wheat" is one of the only foods that cross the blood-brain barrier and bonds, in the brain, with the same receptors as morphine. This means that wheat creates a high and addiction.

It makes sense why it took me a year and a half to go gluten-free.

These books and the accompanying blogs and websites are wonderful resources to learn more about depression and wheat sensitivity. I always urge my clients to take charge of their own treatments, as only you really know what is going on in your body and mind. Gather information from many sources.

See more than one “expert” so that you are comfortable with your treatment goals and progress.  Explore alternative medicines: acupuncture, energy healing, herbalists as well as psychiatry and psychotherapy. And always speak with your psychiatrist before coming off any medication.

You'll find that once you are feeling better and less depressed (or not depressed at all!), your personal relationships will flourish. 

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Ashley Seeger, LICSW is a psychotherapist practicing out of her sunny office in Washington, D.C.  She specializes in couples counseling and can be reached via her website at DCCouplesCounseling.