ADHD & Gluten Sensitivity

By Barbara Froek

Gluten sensitivity falls into two categories, celiac and nonceliac. Celiac gluten sensitivity, also known as celiac disease, is characterized by an immune reaction to gluten -- a protein in wheat, rye and barley. Nonceliac gluten sensitivity is when you have symptoms of gluten intolerance without the immune response that occurs in people with celiac disease. This distinction is crucial because symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, are associated with celiac gluten sensitivity but not with nonceliac.

A Closer Look at Celiac

When people with celiac eat foods or products that contain gluten, their immune system launches an attack. Over time, this immune attack damages the small, fingerlike protrusions on the surface of the small intestines, called villi. These hairlike appendages play a major role in facilitating the absorption of nutrients from food. Symptoms vary from person to person, but it's typical to experience cramping, bloating, constipation, fatigue, depression and anxiety.

Possible Link Between ADHD and Celiac

Researchers found that the risk of having celiac is higher in those with ADHD, according to a study published in the journal "The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders" January 2011 issue. The study involved 67 participants between the ages of 7 and 42 who were diagnosed with ADHD. Researchers tested their blood for antibodies and found 10 of the 67 participants tested positive for celiac. The participants were then put on a gluten-free diet, which significantly improved their behavior and functioning compared to before their celiac diagnosis and treatment.

Getting Tested

Based on the results of the "Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders" study, the report author suggests celiac be included in the ADHD symptoms checklist. This means if you've been diagnosed with ADHD, it's a good idea to get tested for celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac is genetic, which means it runs in families. If anyone else in your family has been diagnosed with celiac, that's a strong reason to get tested. Ask your doctor to perform a blood test to determine whether you have celiac.

Following a Gluten-Free Diet

Not everyone with ADHD has celiac, but if you do, the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet. This requires you to avoid all foods containing wheat, rye and barley. Your doctor or dietitian can provide guidance on following a gluten-free diet. Examples of safe foods include unprocessed fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, seeds, nuts, rice, lean meats and fish. Examples of foods to avoid include bread, cakes, cookies, pies, cereals, croutons, pastas, processed luncheon meats, soups, gravies, beer and seasoned snack foods.

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