Is there a link between gluten and ADHD – attention issues? My eleven-year old daughter says, "Yes!" Two weeks after she stopped eating gluten at the age of eight, my daughter described a remarkable change in her behavior and told her teacher: "It is so much easier to pay attention in class now that I'm not eating gluten. And, three weeks after I stopped eating gluten, I noticed a significant difference in my own attention span as well. Clearly there is a direct connection. But, why?
I reached out to Dr. Charles Parker, psychiatrist and neurological expert on ADHD, for facts to support our family's experience, and here's what Dr. Parker says about the link between gluten, casein (protein in dairy), and ADHD:
Does gluten and casein change neurological pathways? The loud affirmative answer is yes, verified from many peer-reviewed resources. The next consideration: Is the prefrontal cortex, the site of balanced executive function from concentration to working memory, a neurological pathway? Interestingly, some, even in 2016, miss the point that brain function is clearly related to neurological function. Sounds simple, but often overlooked. The more relevant neurophysiology is the competition at the receptor sites for the cytokine parade lit up and amplified by that underlying gluten sensitivity. Cytokines communicate about allergies and compete at many neurotransmitter receptor sites including dopamine – thus causing brain fog. In the years I've worked with ADHD adults and children suffering with executive function challenges, there is absolutely no doubt about the facts that (1) food sensitivities disturb balanced brain function and are the leading cause, in my own experience, of treatment failure with informed use of ADHD meds and (2) even more importantly, food sensitivities are measurable and correctable. So much of ADHD is based on speculation and outright guesswork without provision for measurement of medication actions.
The above explanation touches on the science behind why we noticed a significant improvement in our attention span when we stopped eating gluten. Food sensitivities affect brain function, which is connected to neurological function. (You may also be interested in one of my related articles on brain fog).
Below are a few links that Dr. Parker recommends to "help newcomers wrap their thoughts around these unfamiliar concepts."
- Book by Dr. Charles Parker: New ADHD Medication Rules: Brain Science & Common Sense
- Details on the science behind how gluten, casein, and food allergies affect ADHD treatment: corepsych.com
- Explore this website where bench research is connected with street experience: corebrainjournal.com
Many other respected doctors also see the connection between gluten and ADHD - attention issues, including Dr. Alessio Fasano, M.D., Founder and Director of the Center for Celiac Research, who states in his book Gluten Freedom that "gluten sensitivity can affect all body systems and generate a wide variety of symptoms...ADHD-like behavior."
Recently, I read a story in The New York Times citing a study that concluded that early behavioral therapy for children with ADHD often worked better than medication. For our family, simply removing gluten stopped attention issues. (We also stopped eating dairy a year later). Now, my daughter knows it wasn't her fault but a biological response that she had no control over.
Thank you, Dr. Charles Parker, for your valued time and detailed explanation. I wish you could have seen the smile on my daughter's face when I told her that there is science behind her improvement.
To learn more about other gluten-related disorders, browse through my new Symptoms page.