Last updated: November 27th, 2019
My oldest son was only 4 years old when he was diagnosed with ADHD by his pediatrician. Unfortunately, he was too young to be put on medication. So, we went in search of more natural ways to manage his symptoms.
The pediatrician first recommended we go gluten-free, then recommended that if that didn’t work, to try cutting out processed foods as well that contained ingredients like dyes, preservatives, and additives.
What the heck is gluten? I wondered. So straight to the internet I went to learn all about gluten and its effects on ADHD. My mother-in-law taunted me, oh, does he have celiac disease? But I didn’t care. I was ready to do whatever it took to help him reduce his ADHD symptoms…
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a scientific name for the types of proteins found in wheat and wheat based products. This protein is also found in proline and glutamine rich proteins known as prolamines. Prolamines are found in all cereal grains, but ironically the only ones that cause trouble can be found in wheat. They’re also found in wheatberries, farina, graham, rye, and barley. Oats may also be cross-bred with wheat, making oat based products (unless specifically labeled) contain gluten as well.
It’s been known for a long time that celiac disease sufferers often have ADHD as well, both of which are highly influenced by diet. However, while celiac disease can be controlled through a gluten-free diet, ADHD is more reactive to sugar and may require medication to be completely symptom-free. It has been found though that there is the potential for ADHD sufferers to benefit from a gluten-free diet, as well.
Can a Gluten-Free Diet Cure ADHD?
Since celiac disease sufferers share some same symptoms as those with ADHD, it is assumed some ADHD sufferers may have undiagnosed celiac disease. A 2006 article in the Journal of Attention Disorders confirmed this. 132 participants were studied that were diagnosed with celiac disease. They were also tested for ADHD symptoms. Next, they were put on gluten free diets and checked in on 6 months later. It was concluded that ADHD was markedly overrepresented in people with undiagnosed celiac disease, and that a gluten-free diet may improve their symptoms.
Celiac disease sufferers complain of many the same symptoms as ADHD sufferers do. This may include headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, gas, inability to focus or pay attention, hyperactivity, and more. In a report from the Association of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Celiac Disease, researchers state, “in many cases, the disease may be clinically silent despite manifest small bowel mucosal lesions.” The symptoms overlap so much that the researchers are suggesting people should be screened for celiac disease symptoms by default along with being screened for ADHD symptoms.
Therefore, gluten-free diets seem to work to control ADHD symptoms in some people – when they have undiagnosed celiac disease. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution for ADHD. Many report little if no improvement in their symptoms at all after moving to a gluten-free diet.
Another reason why gluten-free diets may work for some may possibly be due to vitamin deficiencies or allergies and have nothing to do with gluten at all. Gluten-free diets often force one to eat more foods with the vitamins they lack and avoid foods with the ingredients they are allergic to.
What is a Gluten-Free Diet Like?
My son’s pediatrician knew he had no vitamin deficiencies and reasoned with me that by cutting out gluten from his diet, we would also be addressing many other possible food allergies he had. I didn’t understand how this worked at first though until we started on the diet. Gluten-free diets are restrictive! On one you’ll find yourself eating a lot less processed food simply because they contain wheat contamination.
Of course, it seemed unfair to put my son on a gluten-free diet by himself, so I went on the diet, too. At first it seemed like it was expensive, with all of the products on the store shelves designed to be gluten-free costing $5 or more for tiny portions. I eventually learned to adapt though, finding myself searching in the cultural foods sections for rice and corn based replacements. I learned to make some rather strange but delicious foods, like corn tortilla wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and buckwheat battered pork chops.
Most notably, our health improved from the new diet. I’m not sure if this was a side effect of lacking gluten, or if it was because we were eating a lot less processed food. However, his symptoms did seem to improve a little, so I took it a step further. I cut out processed foods completely. No dyes, no preservatives, and no additives. This was when we saw the biggest improvement in his behavior. He seemed calmer and more in control of himself. I could relax a bit more than I had been chasing him around and trying to keep him out of trouble.
Delicious Gluten-Free Foods For People With ADHD
Surprisingly, a gluten-free diet doesn’t need to lack flavor or variety. Rice and corn based products make excellent substitutes for wheat based products. Much can be done with corn tortillas instead of wheat based bread. Rice crackers, rice noodles, and rice cakes also are delicious substitutes for their wheat counterparts.
There are also great substitutes for staples like wheat flour. Buckwheat is a hearty counterpart to wheat that does not contain gluten but does taste earthy and is rich with flavor. It makes an excellent batter, creating a richer, more complex flavor than wheat based flour does. Sorghum flour is great to use in making fluffy, soft breads and baked goods.
If you’re craving bread or sweets, there are tons of easy recipes online for tasty treats, from brownies to cookies and pizza dough. AllRecipes.com has an extensive collection of recipes, as does the Celiac Disease Foundation. Baked Kale chips make for a satisfying and nutritious alternative to processed snacks, and these gluten-free peanut butter cookies are so yummy you won’t want anything else! And here is a quick and easy gluten-free white bread recipe.
ADHD Boss also has a wonderful article on the different fruits and veggies that are good for people with ADHD. This article not only lists which fruits and veggies are most beneficial, but also gives a complete list of the nutrients contained in a serving of each. Along with each fruit or veggie is an explanation of what the health benefits are and what people with ADHD can gain from them.
Sometimes Going Gluten-Free Isn’t Enough
The gluten-free lifestyle wasn’t enough, though, to get my son through school. School was a different type of beast entirely. They wanted him to sit for long hours doing paperwork, and this just didn’t fly with a kid that spent as much time as possible running around and climbing. So, we had to resort to medication.
Neither of us liked the medication. It made him more irritable, lose his appetite, and have heart palpitations. So, I reinstated the gluten-free diet as a last resort to try to get his medication dosage lowered. It worked! Together, the combination of the diet and medication kept his symptoms under control, with a lot less medication needed to achieve the same effect as before.
So, my son has some combination of food allergies and ADHD going on with him. Medication wasn’t the end all answer to it. But the combination of a gluten-free diet with no processed foods along with medication provided a happy medium for which he could then flourish in school.
So How Does This Apply to You?
What does this all mean for you? It certainly doesn’t hurt to try a gluten-free diet, nor does it hurt to try removing processed foods from your diet to control ADHD symptoms. Even if you still need medication, adopting a gluten-free diet may still help reduce the amount of medication you have to take to control your ADHD symptoms.
It also goes to show that diet can have a significant impact on the severity of ADHD symptoms. So even if you don’t go gluten-free, it can’t hurt to examine your diet for any vitamin deficiencies or possible food allergies and amend it accordingly. These options should be exhausted before medication is considered, since there is a high incidence of celiac and food allergy sufferers being misdiagnosed with ADHD.
Remember, though, that a gluten-free diet is not a cure for ADHD. A gluten-free diet may just help with any comorbid symptoms present from an intolerance to wheat. So, if you try it and it fails, it simply means you don’t have an allergy to wheat. There may still be other issues contributing to your symptoms, or your symptoms may possibly be due to ADHD alone. Treatment of ADHD is complex, not only because it’s multifaceted, but also because ADHD can be a secondary or primary diagnosis existing comorbidly with other conditions.