Gluten Sensitivity and Schizophrenia

The epidemic of anxiety surrounding gluten-related issues is astounding. A new study might increase the panic even more among mothers-to-be as it reports an increased risk of schizophrenia in children born to gluten-sensitive mothers.

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, evaluated the levels of antibodies to gliadin (a component of gluten) in more than 700 newborns born between 1975 and 1985. (At birth, antibodies come directly from the mother, so newborns’ levels are actually indicative of maternal antibody levels.) The same birth cohort was evaluated between 1987 and 2003 to determine if a diagnosis of nonaffective psychosis was present. The researchers discovered that the risk of schizophrenia was significantly increased for those whose levels of anti-gliadin antibodies were above the 90th percentile.

The data are preliminary and do not claim to prove a cause-and-effect, but it provides a starting point for the study of autoimmune influences and psychoses. Schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses have been previously associated with nutritional factors and perinatal factors. Birth order, maternal bleeding, and season of birth have all been associated with schizophrenia. As early as the 1970s, wheat gluten was identified as a pathogenic factor in schizophrenia, and celiac disease (the quintessential gluten-sensitivity) has associated neurological syndromes. Whether these syndromes are due to the immune component of gluten sensitivity or the malnutrition or vitamin deficiencies that result from gluten ingestion is not clear.

For mental illnesses as significant as psychosis, this new study provides more questions than answers. Can diet influence mental health and the development of psychosis? Is autoimmunity a component of schizophrenia? Is schizophrenia preventable with a gluten-free maternal diet? Much more research is needed to clarify what factors really do influence the development of such disorders. But, until then, this study may simply add to the gluten anxiety plaguing moms and kids.


Hultman CM, Sparén P, Takei N, Murray RM, & Cnattingius S (1999). Prenatal and perinatal risk factors for schizophrenia, affective psychosis, and reactive psychosis of early onset: case-control study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 318 (7181), 421-6 PMID: 9974454

Pengiran Tengah DS, Wills AJ, & Holmes GK (2002). Neurological complications of coeliac disease. Postgraduate medical journal, 78 (921), 393-8 PMID: 12151653

Singh MM, & Kay SR (1976). Wheat gluten as a pathogenic factor in schizophrenia. Science (New York, N.Y.), 191 (4225), 401-2 PMID: 1246624

Wills AJ, & Unsworth DJ (2002). The neurology of gluten sensitivity: separating the wheat from the chaff. Current opinion in neurology, 15 (5), 519-23 PMID: 12351994

Image via ygrek / Shutterstock.

  • Lennart Borgman

    Dear Dr Gibson, you mention some research going on to 2003. The latest article in the references is however from 2002. Did you forget a reference?

  • Nice post.

    A few observations:

    “Can diet influence mental health..”? Yes, look to PKU (Phenylketonuria) as the archetypal example.

    “Is autoimmunity a component of schizophrenia?”. If we assume that schizophrenia is a heterogeneous condition, one could entertain the suggestion that at least a subgroup might have an autoimmune related component even if it is a comorbidity, bearing in mind that autoimmune conditions seem to ‘clump’ together:

    “Is schizophrenia preventable with a gluten-free maternal diet?”. Assuming that you believe the suggestions from the late Curt Dohan on schizophrenia and wheat:
    you may arrive at an answer.

    I would perhaps disgree with your last statement on gluten anxiety. What science is starting to understand is that (a) issues with gluten don’t just mean coeliac (celiac) disease – see the latest paper from Alessio Fasano and colleagues: and (b) food can, in some cases, impact on behaviour, whether directly or through other mechanisms such as influencing the gut microbiota, hyperpermeability of membranes, etc.

    Perhaps a controlled trial of the gluten-free diet with cases of schizophrenia might be in order (to add to previous trials such as the one by Vlissides and colleagues from a few years back: so as to pick out potential best responders?

  • Neuroamer

    Really interesting post, but yes, can you link to this recent study you mention?

    • My apologies. Here is the reference for the study:
      Karlsson H, Blomstrom A, Wicks S, et al. Maternal antibodies to dietary antigens and risk for nonaffective psychosis in offspring. Am J Psychiatry. 2012;169:625-632. DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.11081197

  • Pingback: Celiac Notes: Opiate Withdrawal from Gluten and Casein? « CorePsych()

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.

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