Anxiety & IBS, Think Gluten Intolerance?

Anxiety & IBS, Think Gluten Intolerance

Have you ever wondered if there might be a connection between anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and your diet?

It’s a topic that often gets overlooked by health care professionals and unfortunately many are being put on medications for anxiety, when low iron is the cause!

With over one in four people suffering with anxiety, irritable symptoms such as stomach cramps, digestive issues (diarrhoea/constipation) are common symptoms. Whilst these are inter-related many don’t know that the cause maybe deeper and food related.

In this blog, I will explore the role of iron deficiency in our lives and its potential connection to anxiety and IBS, particularly in young women. Let’s dive into the importance of iron and how it affects our overall well-being.

Understanding Iron and its Functions

Iron is an essential mineral found muscle tissues of animals and some plant sources.

Its primary role is to facilitate the transfer of oxygen throughout our body. It is stored in our body and utilised for making new red blood cells (the ones that carry oxygen around the body).

While some plant-based sources contain iron, the levels are typically lower.

In a healthy body, iron is efficiently recycled and reused but you need to be consuming it regularly.

However, when absorption is compromised or blood loss increases, iron stores can deplete rapidly.

Athletes, pregnant and lactating women use a lot more iron (30mg/day) instead of the accepted 20mg/day.

Iron Deficiency: Three Common Causes

Iron deficiency often stems from one of three primary causes:

1. Inadequate Dietary Intake:

Individuals who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet may not consume enough iron-rich foods, leading to a deficiency.

 2. Absorption Issues:

Problems within the gastrointestinal tract, particularly the gut wall, can hinder iron absorption. Eg: dairy/gluten intolerance/allergy, the presence of parasites, bacteria.

3. Blood Loss:

Whether due to heavy menstrual periods in women or bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract in both sexes, uncontrolled blood loss can deplete iron stores.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

When iron levels drop, especially in women, a range of symptoms can manifest. These include:

  1. Mental Fog: Feeling disconnected, abstract, and prone to catastrophizing without apparent triggers.
  2. Mood Changes: A flattened mood, not necessarily depression, but a sense of being emotionally off-kilter. Catastrophizing can be distressing as it is intrusive and can plague a happy situation. (Catastrophizing is when the person sees events such as a car accident, gun shooting etc and is fixated on dramatic events).
  3. Anxiety-Like Symptoms: Palpitations, a racing heart, shortness of breath, or a feeling of “butterflies” in the stomach, often misinterpreted as anxiety.
  4. Physical Complaints: Sore stomach, nausea, and IBS-related symptoms such as burping, bad breath, bloating, flatulence, constipation, and even pebble-like stools with blood on toilet paper. Blood on the toilet paper should always be investigated.
  5. Hair loss
  6. Heart palpitations
  7. Menstrual Irregularities: Heavier periods and clots due to iron deficiency.
  8. Physical Discomfort: Shin aches, leg throbbing, and generalized body aches.
  9. Neurological Symptoms: Tingling in the extremities, memory issues, and other cognitive difficulties.

Addressing Iron Deficiency

For those with inadequate dietary intake of iron, understanding iron-rich food sources and incorporating them into their diet is essential. However, for those with absorption issues or excessive blood loss, additional measures are necessary.

Iron rich foods include:

  • Red meats
  • Chicken (especially the thighs)
  • Fish
  • Molasses
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Spirulina

Healthy spirulina drink in the glass


Absorption and Gut Health

Absorption of iron primarily occurs in the small intestine, following the breakdown of food by stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes. Factors that can hinder absorption include:

  1. Stress: High stress levels or medications that reduce stomach acid production can impair iron absorption. Many over the counter antacids will prevent iron absorption long term, as will PPIs.
  2. Dairy: Many people have difficulty digesting dairy, leading to a mucus coating in the bowel that blocks iron absorption.
  3. Gluten Intolerance: Gluten is a major cause of iron deficiency and can damage the intestinal villi responsible for iron absorption, even in individuals not diagnosed with celiac disease.
  4. Parasites, SIBO, bacterial overgrowth: The gut needs a perfect blend of good bacteria to create an environment for healthy absorption. Any changes to this (anti biotic use, a gastro, food poisoning) may impede the gut wall integrity and its ability to absorb adequately.

Gluten Sensitivity

Beyond iron deficiency, gluten sensitivity can manifest in various ways, affecting the head, gut, or skin. Symptoms may include headaches, emotional changes, reflux, mouth ulcers, bloating, constipation, skin issues, and more.

Gluten itself can be very agitating affecting the brain and the emotional response but this blog is focusing primarily on iron deficiency.

The solution for gluten sensitivity is straightforward: eliminate gluten from your diet for at least three months and observe any improvements in symptoms. If you experience positive changes, you may have found the answer to your health issues.


Iron deficiency is a common concern, particularly among young women and those with gluten sensitivity.

If there is iron deficiency due to a gluten or dairy issue, often Vitamin D will also be low.

The interplay between iron, anxiety, and IBS can have a significant impact on overall well-being.

By understanding the causes and symptoms of iron deficiency and making informed dietary choices, you can take steps to improve your health and quality of life.

Managing iron deficiency with iron infusions doesn’t make sense when the overall driver such as gluten or dairy intolerance or allergy is not addressed. Start with your diet, reduce or stop gluten and dairy.

If you’re unsure about your iron levels or need guidance, consider asking your doctor for iron studies (blood test) doing  a hair test or reaching out for professional advice.