The blahs of wintertime can take hold – and fast. There’s evidence to suggest the lack of sunlight in winter disrupts our internal clocks, drops the body’s serotonin levels and may intensify feelings of melancholy.
It’s important to appreciate that the connection between depression and celiac disease is well established; the condition can be both a symptom and a result of celiac disease. But while there is no surefire way to prevent depression, there are strategies to keep the doldrums at bay.
1. Vigilantly adhere to the gluten-free diet.
When we’re feeling down or left out, it is easy to be tempted to take food risks. A 2011 study, however, found that female celiac patients who kept to a strict gluten-free diet reported better overall mental health and a lower level of stress than those who had less diet compliance.
2. Don’t avoid social situations.
It’s important to maintain connections and resist isolation when we feel down. Celiac disease can feel lonely at times, so consider joining social activities that don’t involve food. If food can’t be avoided, bring your own gluten-free dish to share. With more gluten-free options available than ever before, it’s much easier to find food everyone will enjoy.
If you were glutened over the holidays, you might feel hesitant to get back out there. We need to take care of our physical health, especially since we live with a self-managed autoimmune disease, but we can’t stop living our lives either. Take the time to figure out how you were glutened and use it as a lesson.
A study conducted by Dr. Justine Dowd and colleagues at the University of British Columbia examined the role that self-compassion plays in gluten-free diet adherence and quality of life. The team found that those who practice self-compassion – offering kindness and understanding to themselves, especially in times of difficulty or failure – have a better quality of life, more successful coping strategies, and a stronger sense of personal responsibility.
Simply put, don’t forget about self-love. We are all human. Whether you accidentally or purposefully ate gluten, forgive yourself, move on, and strive for improvement, not perfection.
3. Connect with other people with celiac disease.
Interacting with others in the same situation brings a double benefit: it helps you to be social and to know that you’re not alone in managing this serious genetic autoimmune disease. When I was first diagnosed more than 20 years ago, I felt like the only person in the world with celiac disease. Meeting others who shared my struggles and experiences made me feel understood more than anything else could. In the digital age, you can connect with others on the Internet if in-person support groups are not readily available.
4. Eat a balanced diet.
Many people – with celiac disease or not – find that the pounds stick around even after the holiday sweets and events are finished. If you slipped up during that festive season, don’t panic! Switch back to naturally gluten-free foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts and seeds. Limit packaged gluten-free goods that tend to be less healthy than whole, fresh foods.
Research shows that a balanced diet can improve sleep, increase energy, and help improve some symptoms of celiac disease – all of which will help you to feel your best.
5. Up the exercise.
In addition to maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise is helpful in reducing stress, anxiety and feelings of depression. Exercise releases endorphins, which help to trigger feelings of positivity. Also, exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous to be effective. Find an activity that makes you feel good, whether it’s jogging on the treadmill, playing a game with your kids, or taking a brisk walk at lunch.
Besides my exercise routine, I squeeze in extra activity by using a stand-up desk rather than a traditional chair setup. This decreases back and neck pain from hours of sitting at a computer. Most important to my daily routine is simply remembering to breathe, especially if the going gets tough. I find yoga and meditation extremely helpful in managing the stress that comes with celiac disease.
Living with celiac disease can pose challenges that make certain tasks more difficult for us than others. Depression can be a very real concern, and as people living with a self-managed autoimmune disease, it’s up to us to pay attention to our physical and mental well-being. If you’re struggling with depression, I strongly encourage you to speak with your doctor.
By calling in a team of experts to help, you can move beyond your celiac disease diagnosis and focus on treating your whole self.
Alice Bast is President and CEO of Beyond Celiac (formerly the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness). For resources to help navigate your gluten-free diet, visit www.beyondceliac.org