Despite widespread speculation about the connection between ADHD and gluten free diets, little formal research has been carried out on the subject. It is widely accepted that celiac disease is often accompanied by behavioral and neurological symptoms, so it seems a logical extension that symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might be diet-related as well.
ADHD and Celiac Disease
Finding a connection between ADHD and celiac disease can be difficult because ADHD is a condition associated with deficiency of specific neurotransmitters in the brain. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), diagnosis requires other medical conditions be ruled out. If gluten intolerance were causing hyperactivity and poor attention, by definition the patient would not be considered to have ADHD.
In spite of this, research has indeed found a link between the two. A study published in the June 2004 issue of the journal Pediatrics examined the medical records of 322 pediatric patients over the course of 24 years. Of these patients, 111 had been formally diagnosed with celiac disease by means of intestinal biopsy and the remainder served as control subjects.
Researchers not only found there was a statistically significant increase in diagnosis of ADHD among celiac patients, but also that the normal distribution of occurrence between male and female subjects was altered among celiac patients. Ordinarily, male children are identified as having ADHD far more frequently than females. This difference was evident within the control group among boys and girls who experienced ADHD at frequencies of 12.9 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively. Amongst the celiac patients, the occurrence of ADHD was almost even between boys and girls, with 21 percent of boys and 20.3 percent of girls receiving a formal diagnosis.
The increased incidence of clinically diagnosed ADHD and the skewing of established gender distributions seem to indicate a causal factor at play. It is apparent there may, in fact, be a connection between ADHD and celiac disease, but does this indicate new treatment options for ADHD?
Connecting ADHD and Gluten Free Diets
Based on this and other research, a 2006 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders (10.2) sought to establish a connection between ADHD and gluten free diets. Researchers assessed ADHD symptoms before the participants began following a gluten free diet as well as after the subjects had spent six months gluten free. The study found an overall improvement on formal test scores as well as on general ADHD symptoms.
While drug treatments for ADHD may come with side effects or other health concerns, there is very little risk involved in trying a gluten free diet as one aspect of a comprehensive treatment plan for ADHD. No prescription is required, no side effects have been identified, and the whole family will benefit nutritionally from the influx of of healthy, unprocessed foods.
Gluten Free Diets for Children
Even if ADHD symptoms can be controlled using a gluten free diet, many parents are concerned their children will refuse to eat the types of foods necessitated by a gluten free diet. In The Autism and ADHD Diet, author Barrie Silberberg reassures parents that it is, indeed possible to get children to eat and even enjoy these healthier options. Silberberg reports many children resist initially, but once acclimated to the diet, come to crave the foods their bodies need over starchy carbohydrates or processed items.
Other parents are concerned about the safety of such a diet. Nutrition during childhood is so important to a child's growth and development that many parents are hesitant to exclude whole grains. Rest assured that a properly executed gluten free diet is generally even more nutritious than the standard American diet. Additionally, a gluten intolerant person is better able to absorb the nutrients from food once gluten has been eliminated from the diet.
If you think a gluten free diet might benefit your child and are considering attempting an elimination diet, it is normal to feel unsure. If you have any concerns about the safety of a gluten free diet or about your ability to plan nutritious meals without wheat products, consult with a licensed dietician. A dietician can take your family's individual needs into account and come up with a meal plan that meets your child's needs without sacrificing nutrition or flavor.