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Gluten and ADHD

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Everywhere you look these days you see something pertaining to gluten or to the gluten free diet. What you don’t see much of are the reasons behind it. The main culprit to the gluten free diet is a disease known as celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disorder that is caused by the consumption of the protein gluten. Gluten is found in many foods that contain wheat, barley or rye. The most common foods that contain gluten are bread, pasta, pizza, most pastries and cereal. According to, Celiac Disease is becoming more and more common. It now affects 1 out of 100 people in the U.S. In order to treat CD, people have to completely avoid eating gluten and have to go on a gluten free diet the rest of their life. There is no cure however; people that follow a strict gluten free diet can live a long healthy life. A huge number of foods contain gluten. Gluten provides structure or binding to baked products. While it's quite difficult to avoid gluten, many stores, particularly natural food stores, display foods in a gluten-free area of the store. Still, it's important to read nutrition labels to see if there are additives containing gluten.

When someone is on a gluten-free diet, most bread and grain products are forbidden. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the child (or other person) receives ample fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Supplementation can help make up for the lack of these nutrients when foods containing gluten are eliminated.

So what is it about a simple food product that can cause such havoc on a body? Seems it’s not just those that suffer from Celiac that gluten can cause serious issues on their mind and body. Parents are attesting to the fact that their children’s behavior changes drastically when removing gluten from their diets. Children with autism become more aware of their surroundings, children with ADHD become more settled, being able to live a more calm everyday life, with stronger concentration levels. Parents have said for years that diet appears to play a role in their children's symptoms of ADHD, and many have removed food dyes and additives, along with sugar, from their children's plates in an effort to manage the condition. However, recent research is pointing to a new potential culprit for ADHD symptoms: gluten. The evidence for an association between ADHD and celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten is strong. Children and adults with undiagnosed celiac disease have a much higher risk of ADHD than the general population.

In one study, researchers tested 67 people with ADHD for celiac disease. Study participants ranged in age from 7 to 42. A total of 15% tested positive for celiac disease. That's far higher than the incidence of celiac in the general population, which is about 1%. Once they started on a gluten-free diet, the patients or their parents reported significant improvements in their behavior and functioning, and these improvements were backed up by ratings on a check list physicians use to monitor severity of ADHD symptoms. Once they started on a gluten free diet, the patients or their parents reported significant improvements in their behavior and functioning, and these improvements were backed up by ratings on a check list physicians use to monitor severity of ADHD symptoms.

Not everyone who has a problem with gluten has celiac disease — recent research has identified markers for non-celiac gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, which seems to involve a reaction to gluten but not the intestinal damage that characterizes celiac disease. Gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivity, may affect up to 8% of the population. For people with gluten intolerance, studies show it's possible that gluten plays a role in ADHD symptoms, but it's less clear how large a role it plays.

Anecdotally, parents of children with ADHD have reported improvements in behavior (some quite significant) when they placed their children on special diets, including a gluten-free diet. However, it's difficult to correlate those improvements with the dietary changes.

Currently, there's no accepted test to detect gluten intolerance; the only way to know if you have it is if your symptoms (which usually involve digestive problems but also can involve neurological issues such as headaches) clear up when you go gluten-free. If you suspect gluten may be contributing to yours or your child's ADHD symptoms, what should you do?

First, you should consider testing for celiac disease, especially if you or your child shows other celiac-related symptoms. Remember, not all symptoms involve your digestive system; celiac symptoms in children may involve something more subtle, such as short stature or failure to thrive.

In most cases, your physician will use a blood test to screen for celiac disease, followed by an endoscopy if the blood test is positive. If the tests are negative for celiac disease (or if you decide not to pursue testing), you may want to discuss dropping gluten from your diet or your child's diet for a month or so to see if symptoms improve. To do this test properly, you'll need to avoid gluten completely, not just cut back on it. If the symptoms are influenced by gluten ingestion, you should notice a change within that month.



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