From time to time, someone will claim to have found a "cure" for ADHD. Some are behavioral strategies, some herbal supplements, while still others are diet-based. Recently, numerous sources have contended that ADHD could be a product of gluten intolerance, and thus, a gluten-free diet could be the "cure" to ADHD. Though this theory is not new – gluten-free and casein-free diets have long been discussed as potential solutions to ADHD – but the idea appears to be gaining more traction.
So what is the truth behind a gluten-free diet and ADHD? Is ADHD caused by gluten-intolerance, and can a gluten-free diet "cure" ADHD?
Gluten is a protein present in wheat, barley and rye. When the food is processed into breads, doughs, baked goods and even beer, the gluten protein remains and some people have difficulty digesting it. If a person has an actual allergic reaction to the protein, he or she has celiac disease. However, not everyone with gluten intolerance and sensitivity has celiac. While it is estimated that one in 133 people has celiac disease, some estimates say that between 6% and 7% of Americans have difficulty digesting gluten. That’s about 20 million people.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders confirmed the link between ADHD and celiac disease. The researchers studied 132 participants affected by celiac disease and tested for ADHD symptoms. The patients were then put on a gluten-free diet and re-evaluated six months later. The conclusion: "ADHD-like symptomatology is markedly overrepresented among untreated [celiac disease] patients and that a gluten-free diet may improve symptoms significantly within a short period of time."
In 2011, researchers from the Psychiatric Hospital of Rodewisch (Germany) studied 67 patients, of whom 10 tested positive for celiac disease. After going on a gluten-free diet, patients showed significant improvement in behavior and functioning compared to the period before dietary restrictions. Like the 2006 study, the researchers concluded that "celiac disease is markedly overrepresented among patients presenting with ADHD." The study also said: "A gluten-free diet significantly improved ADHD symptoms with celiac disease in this study."
These studies certainly link the prominence of celiac disease in ADHD patients at a higher rate than for the general public. From the research, it appears that symptoms of celiac disease closely resemble the symptoms of ADHD, but it is possible that an ADHD diagnosis could, in fact, be indicative of gluten intolerance.
So what does this mean? For those who have concerns about ADHD, before filling a prescription for a stimulant medication, it may be wise to investigate the benefits of a gluten-free diet first. However, if a gluten-free diet does not improve symptoms, then patients should consult a doctor about the medication option. A gluten-free diet may not be the "cure" to ADHD, but it appears to be able to help control some symptoms that resemble ADHD.
Niederhofer, H. (2011). "Association of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and celiac disease: a brief report." The Primary Care Companion to CNS Disorders, vol. 13(3).
Niederhofer, H., Pittschieler, K. (November 2006). "A preliminary investigation of ADHD symptoms in persons with celiac disease." Journal of Attention Disorders, vol. 10(2): 200-4.