Is There a Gluten and ADHD Link?

A link between diet and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) was first researched in the 1970s, with studies focusing on artificial colors and preservatives. Studies over the last two decades have shown that diet can have a significant impact on ADHD symptoms, prompting the American Academy of Pediatrics to support eliminating preservatives and food colorings from the diet as a reasonable option for children with ADHD. Experts also recommend avoiding food additives (such as aspartame, MSG and nitrites), gluten and dairy. Doctors have long suspected a gluten and ADHD link, and new research is shedding light on the relationship between Celiac disease and ADHD.

What is Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. When Celiac patients ingest gluten, it prompts their immune system to attack the small intestine, causing inflammation and a host of intestinal and multi-system problems. These include obvious symptoms such as abdominal pain, heartburn and diarrhea, as well as less obvious symptoms such as bone or joint pain, headaches and general fatigue. Celiac is a genetic disorder that is tested for via bloodwork and endoscopy.

Gluten sensitivity is a term used to describe people who experience symptoms of Celiac disease (bloating, gas, abdominal pain, brain fog, etc.) and find improvement on a gluten-free diet, but whose test results come back negative for Celiac. Gluten sensitivity does not appear to prompt an autoimmune reaction as with Celiac, nor do the symptoms match the traditional immunoglobulin response of a food allergy.

What is the Link Between Gluten, ADHD and Celiac?

A recent study found that Celiac disease may be the answer to the gluten and ADHD link. In this study, 67 patients with ADHD were screened for Celiac disease and ten were found to have the disorder. This means that 15% of the participants tested positive for Celiac, which is far greater than the 1% incidence of Celiac found in the general population. Once these patients started a gluten-free diet, researchers saw a marked improvement in their ADHD symptoms.

Another study evaluated 132 people newly diagnosed with Celiac disease, and found that ADHD symptoms were markedly overrepresented among the untreated Celiac patients. A gluten-free diet also proved beneficial for these participants, with most people seeing vast improvement in their ADHD symptoms within 6 months of eliminating gluten. These studies have prompted some doctors to urge that ADHD be listed as a co-occurring condition to Celiac disease, and that patients with ADHD be automatically screened for Celiac disease.

For ADHD patients who do not have Celiac disease but do exhibit signs of gluten sensitivity, the studies are more inconclusive. Patients typically see a reduction in hyperactivity after starting a gluten-free diet, but improvement in other ADHD symptoms varies.

The Bottom Line on Gluten and ADHD

If you or your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, you should be tested for Celiac disease and food allergies such as gluten and dairy. Dr. Minni Malhotra, MD, FAARM, ABAARM is a Board Certified physician in Family Medicine, as well as Board Certified with the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, who can help you navigate dietary protocols for ADHD with nutritional counseling, allergy testing, Neurofeedback, and a personalized treatment plan. Call us today at (832) 246-8437 to schedule a consultation.

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