By on July 21, 2015

What you eat may affect your emotions


Jackson Hole, Wyoming – My patient Laura called me from Laramie this week and thanked me for the diagnosis and treatment program I developed with her five years ago. She encouraged me to write this article because she feels that people don’t realize the connection between food and their mental health.

“My symptoms started around 20 years ago when I was 17 and lived in Norway as an exchange student,” Laura said. “The diet in that country is focused around wheat bread and cheese. Symptoms of ruthless chronic anxiety began progressively. I was in such a state of fatigue during this time that my hair began to fall out by the fistful. I began growing a funny fuzz of hair on my face not unlike an anorexic and my jaw was so stiff that I had to massage it in order to open it to eat.

“Desperate for help, I saw at least 10 doctors as well as three counselors and a psychiatrist,” she continued. “Every doctor told me, ‘You are healthy as a horse, you are just depressed,’ and sent me out the door with an anti-depressant prescription. As per your instructions, I removed gluten and dairy from my diet. Since I went gluten and dairy free, I have graduated at the top of my class with an education degree and have been hired as a first year teacher in Laramie working in a kindergarten class. I am healthy, hopeful, positive, mentally balanced, productive and excited about my life.”

After her first office visit, I had recommended she stay away from gluten (especially wheat) and dairy. She did so and hasn’t looked back. She has had two slip-ups in the last five years while dining out and felt the effects immediately.

There are many published articles about wheat and dairy affecting mental health. The diseases most commonly mentioned are schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, autism and attention deficit disorder. They all come back to the same problem: inflammation.

Certain foods have a more detrimental effect on your health than others. Contributing factors also include your microbial load, genetics, vitamin and mineral status.

Wheat and other gluten-containing grains have a protein called gliadin that causes a reaction in the gut. It opens up spaces between the cells in the digestive tract making the intestinal epithelial barrier in the gut more permeable (also known as leaky gut). This allows larger particles to enter the blood stream causing inflammation. Some of these inflammation-causing substances are food, but others are bacteria or viruses.  The association between celiac disease (an auto-immune condition caused by a reaction to gluten) and schizophrenia has been widely documented. Patients with schizophrenia have an increase in anti-gliadin antibodies. Their immune system identifies gliadin as an invader and reacts. This inflammatory response affects their brain.

With dairy, the protein casein is the reactive substance. Patients with casein antibodies are seven to eight times more likely to suffer from schizophrenia and three to five times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder.

I am not one of those alternative doctors that think gluten and diary are the devil, but our food supply has undergone significant changes in the last two decades, especially with wheat. Only 1 percent of the population is celiac, but a much greater percentage experiences a lower-level reaction to wheat. Wheat has been hybridized into a different grain to increase yields for our growing population. This crossbreeding has increased wheat’s gluten content and decreased its vitamin and mineral content. This may be one of the reasons it affects so many adversely.

How do you heal your body?

As a naturopathic physician I always treat the cause of disease.

The first place to start is to stop eating gluten and dairy for a specified period and to carefully note any and all physical and emotional changes you experience. There are hidden sources of both gluten and dairy in most processed foods, so get used to closely inspecting food labels. In addition, there are supplements that can help heal a leaky gut and change your microbial load. A carefully researched program of vitamins and minerals can aid in the production of neurotransmitters.

Depression is a complex condition that can have many different sources. Diet-based triggers of depression are some of the most readily identifiable for patients that are willing to change and monitor their eating habits. And the results can be life changing. Just ask Laura.

Monique Lai, ND, has been practicing in Jackson for 15 years after graduating from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in 1996 and practicing in Washington, D.C. She treats everything from gastrointestinal issues to menopause, allergies, thyroid disorders, autoimmune diseases and depressed immune systems. Find out more at

About Dr. Monique Lai

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