Gluten and Schizophrenia Linked

Schizophrenia risk increased for children of women with gluten intolerance

May 16, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) An inability to eat foods with gluten, like bread and rice, is frustrating enough for many people. But the condition may have further implications for women planning to have children.

A recent study has identified a higher risk for children to develop schizophrenia or other non-mood-related mental disorders if their mother has a high sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, an ingredient found in wheat, barley and rye.

"Talk to your OB/GYN about any pregnancy concerns."

In a study led by Håkan Karlsson and Christina Dalman, both medical doctors at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, researchers gathered data from 764 birth records and newborn blood samples from Swedish children born between 1975 and 1985.

They first selected records from 211 children who later developed mental disorders that are not related to mood or emotions, such as schizophrenia or delusional disorders. These types of mental illnesses are called non-affective psychoses.

The researchers then identified 553 other records to match to the 211 in terms of the child's gender, date of birth, hospital of birth and city of birth.

Using the newborn blood samples, the researchers measured the antibodies in the blood had been produced as an immune response to two proteins: casein and gliadin.

Casein is a protein found in cow's milk, and gliadin is a component of gluten.

If the researchers found high levels of these antibodies in the newborns' blood, that meant the immune system of the baby's mother had produced the antibodies, since these will then cross the placenta to provide the baby with similar immunity as the mother.

If the mother's body is producing antibodies in response to casein and/or gliadin, that means her body cannot tolerate the protein, which makes her lactose-intolerant (casein), gluten-intolerant (gliadin) or both.

The researchers found that children whose mothers had abnormally high levels of gliadin antibodies - over the 90th percentile, indicating a low tolerance for gluten - were 1.7 times as likely as the other children to develop a non-mood-related mental disorder, such as schizophrenia. 

It should be noted that the average person's lifetime risk for developing schizophrenia is less than one percent.

The association between gluten intolerance and the child's development of a mental disorder remained even after the researchers controlled for other factors that can heighten the risk of developing schizophrenia, such as the mother's age, the baby's gestational age when born, the baby's birth weight and being born by cesarean section.

"Lifestyle and genes are not the only factors that shape the risk of developing a certain disease, but factors during the pregnancy and immediately after birth can also be involved in the pre-programming of our adult health," Karlsson said. 

But he emphasized that this link his team has discovered does not mean that any woman with a gluten intolerance is going to have a schizophrenic child.

"This does not mean that sensitivity to certain foods invariably will cause schizophrenia," Karlsson said.

The study appeared online April 25 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The research was funded by the Stanley Medical Research Institute, the Swedish Research Council and the Stockholm County Council.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 15, 2012
Last Updated:
July 11, 2012