September 28, 2004

Gluten Intolerance May Play Role in Certain Mental Illness

Schizophrenia is a little understood illness, however, groundbreaking work suggests there may be a dietary link, writes Anna King

According to The World Health Organisation, mental health problems are becoming the number one health issue for the 21st century, "with one in every four people suffering at some point in their lives from mental health issues such as suicide, schizophrenia, depression and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)."

One of the most serious mental health problems is schizophrenia. An estimated one in a hundred people suffer from a range of symptoms that are classified as schizophrenia.

The symptoms may include distorted perceptions and thought disorders, illusions and delusions, auditory and visual hallucination, anti-social behaviour and associated depression and anxiety.

The schizophrenic brain distorts sensing, feeling, remembering, deciding and acting. In severe cases hospitalisation is recommended for fear that patients may harm themselves or another person. The medical drugs used by psychiatrists usually only control some of the symptoms and can have a range of severe side affects including lethargy, malaise and lack of concentration.

There is still very little understanding within mainstream medicine about what causes schizophrenia. There is, however, some groundbreaking work being conducted within the field of nutrition that is unfolding evidence to suggest a link between gluten intolerance and schizophrenia. A growing number of publications in mainstream medical journals are supporting further research in this area.

The British Medical Journal published a report this year stating that researchers in the US and Denmark have discovered a connection between gluten intolerance and schizophrenia.

It is thought that gluten intolerance may trigger cerebral allergies, which can show symptoms of mental illness, including schizophrenia.

Researchers believe that one out of 10 Americans suffers from food intolerances. The Journal of Paediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition in 2000 reported that coeliac disease is very common and is found in one in every hundred and eleven healthy adults in the US, and one in thirty adults with symptoms.

Gluten enteropathy, otherwise known as coeliac disease is an unusual sensitivity to gluten (a mixture of two proteins present in wheat, rye, oats and barley). In this condition the small intestine reacts to the protein of the cereal grains and breaks down the structure of the intestinal wall allowing undigested food particles to circulate into the blood stream.

This causes a multiple of disturbances in the body and may induce cerebral allergies, including mild to severe psychological disorders including schizophrenia. Inadequate nutrients may further exacerbate psychological disturbance.

One advocate of a nutritional approach to schizophrenia is Professor Andre Tylee, chairman of The National Institute of Mental Health, who is responsible for educating all British GPs in the treatment of mental health.

Through the Brain Bio Centre, a London-based treatment centre, set up by the UK Mental Health Project, he supports the testing of mentally ill patients for food intolerances and believes "the optimum nutrition approach is the breakthrough we [the medical profession] have been waiting for."

Patrick Holford, a leading authority on new approaches to health and nutrition, and director of the UK Mental Health Project, believes that schizophrenia can be cured: "One way of reversing symptoms is to minimize the biochemical imbalances that may have led to distorted mental experiences. This can be done through diet changes and improving nutrition."

The hypothesis that a gluten free diet may dramatically improve symptoms in patients with schizophrenia is not a new theory. Since the 1960s research has been published suggesting that coeliac disease may present with psychiatric symptoms. Renowned Dr Abram Hoffer former director of psychiatric research for Saskatchewan, Canada treated thousands of schizophrenic patients by using dietary approaches.

Dr Marshall Mandell, now retired, is also recognised as a leading authority in the field of allergy and ecologic illness in America. He has documented case studies that suggest a conclusive link between food intolerance and psychological illness. Dr Mandell's pioneering work inspired Galway-based psychiatrist Harvey Wasserman to try a gluten free diet with one of his schizophrenic patients.

"When I began working with Owen I was moved to tears by his condition," explains Dr Wasserman. "I felt that this young man was condemned to a life of hell. Although anti-psychotic drugs are effective, they do not offer a cure, and in Owen's case he was still plagued with some of the symptoms. His medical prognosis was that he would have to stay on these drugs for the rest of his life. When I met Owen he was depressed, exhausted, confused and had no desire to live his life."

"During a session I suggested that Owen, under professional guidance, gave up gluten to see if his condition improved. As long as people suffering from schizophrenia do not immediately give up their medication and are professionally supervised there are no risks at all in trying an elimination diet, only possible benefits.

"Even if a very small percentage of people can be helped by eliminating certain foods from their diet it is worth trying. Schizophrenia is a nightmare existence.

John Saunders, director of Schizophrenia Ireland (a voluntary support network for people and families with severe mental illness) says: "There is a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that nutrition and complementary therapies such as yoga and meditation are both aiding and sustaining recovery from severe mental illness including schizophrenia. I am most certainly interested in following up any evidence suggesting that some people with schizophrenia may benefit from giving up gluten."