Could Gluten Make ADHD Worse?

Last Editorial Review: 6/2/2017

Ask the Experts

Could ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), including learning disabilities, be improved with a gluten-free diet?

Doctor's Response

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. There exists a genetically predisposing condition called Gluten-Sensitive Enteropathy (also called Celiac Disease or Celiac Sprue) in which, after long-term (months to years) exposure to these dietary proteins, the lining of the small intestine is injured. As a result, this area of intestine, so important in the absorbing and digesting of all nutrients, is unable to work properly, and the result is a broad spectrum of problems relating to malnourishment. Diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating, vomiting, poor growth, and developmental delays are common symptoms of this condition in late infancy and early childhood. And, of course, such a significant disorder could be associated with poor attention span and learning problems. Therefore, any child whose learning and attentional problems are caused by this gluten sensitivity would show major improvement with the elimination of gluten from their diet, allowing the gut to heal and begin normal digestion and absorption.

Can Going Gluten Free Improve ADHD Symptoms?

But by definition, ADHD describes a behavioral disorder that is caused by a biochemical disorder within the brain itself, thought to be associated with neurotransmitter deficiency. The diagnosis of ADHD specifically excludes the many other conditions that can be associated with symptoms that mimic those found in ADHD, such as other chronic diseases of the body, psychiatric depression, mental retardation, and so on. If a child's behavioral and/or learning problems are improved by a gluten-free diet, he is not likely to have ADHD. This is why it is so important that, before the diagnosis of ADHD is made in any child, he has a complete medical workup to rule out any of the other emotional and physical conditions that can cause symptoms that mimic ADHD or learning disorders.

Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics


"Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents: Overview of treatment and prognosis"

"Epidemiology, pathogenesis, and clinical manifestations of celiac disease in children"