Gluten, ADHD and Headaches…Let’s discuss!

food medicine

Welcome to Deep Dive Friday! Today we are going to discuss the relationship between gluten and neurological disorders, and I will source the majority of the information from Grain Brain, by David Perlmutter, M.D. I realize this is a hot-button topic, with those in the medical community who are not convinced of gluten’s destructive effects on the brain. For those in that group, I would ask you to describe your clinical experience or results of studies which are contrary to the first-hand cases that Dr. Perlmutter reported. (No darts or name-calling, please – that’s bush league.)

The reason I would like to cover this today is because headaches and ADHD are quite prevalent and it seems to me that prescribed medications only treat the symptoms and not root cause(s) of the problem and also likely have significant side-effects. Now that we are gaining an awareness of the role gluten may play in our health, why not get tested for gluten sensitivity if you or a family member suffers from one of these ailments?

Let’s begin with ADHD

According to new data from the CDC that came out in March 2013 [1], nearly 1 in 5 high school-age boys in the US and 11% of schoolchildren overall have been diagnosed with ADHD. That translates to an estimated 6.4 million children ages 4 – 17, reflecting a 16% increase since 2007 and a 53% rise in the past decade [2]. This is therefore an important issue impacting millions of kids.

Dr. Perlmutter describes a couple of cases from his practice. One is the case of a 4-year old named Stuart, who was described as unusually “active” by his preschool teacher, diagnosed as ADHD by a pediatrician, and (of course) prescribed Ritalin [p.150]. He noted the following during an examination of Stuart:

–          He was a mouth-breather, an indication of ongoing inflammation in the nasal passages

–          He had dark circles under his eyes that correlate with allergies

–          He was very active and could not sit still for more than 10 seconds

A test for gluten sensitivity that measures the level of antibodies against gliadin, a wheat protein, was 300x higher than the level considered normal by the laboratory. Dr. Perlmutter prescribed the following instead of Ritalin to treat Stuart’s inflammation:

–          A gluten-free diet

–          Probiotics to rebuild a healthy gut after many rounds of antibiotics

–          Omega-3 fat DHA

Stuart’s condition improved dramatically after 2 ½ weeks – he was calmer, more interactive and slept better. The pre-school teacher assumed the improvement was because of Ritalin. After 2 years, he was excelling in reading and math, was one of the tallest kids in his class, and showing no signs of hyperactivity.

Here is Dr. Perlmutter’s take on ADHD [p. 152]:

“ADHD is one of the most frequent diagnoses offered in the pediatrician’s office. Parents of hyperactive children are led to believe that their children have some form of a disease that will limit their ability to learn. The medical establishment too often convinces parents that medication is the best “quick fix”. The whole notion that ADHD is a specific disease easily remedied by a pill is convenient but alarming. In several schools throughout the United States as many as 25% of students are routinely receiving powerful, mind-altering medications, the long-term consequences of which have never been studied!”

I’d like to repeat that last line for emphasis:

In several schools throughout the United States as many as 25% of students are routinely receiving powerful, mind-altering medications, the long-term consequences of which have never been studied!

In my humble opinion (IMHO): Millions of parents should be irate that the long-term consequences of taking Ritalin or Adderall are unknown but they are prescribed widely nonetheless, with little thought given to a root cause diagnosis by the mainstream medical community. Recall a comment I made in my last blog about our bodies as ATM’s? Yeah, this is an example of that because the ADHD drugs are a cash cow now, and any health issues that result from ADHD medications will need to be treated by…you guessed it…more prescription drugs and maybe even surgeries (Jackpot! The gift that keeps on giving!). Progressive, functional physicians like Dr. Mark Hyman are critical of this profit-driven approach – check out his comments in this post (

If you have a child on ADHD medication, please find a functional or integrative doctor willing to look for the root cause of any behavioral issues, especially gluten intolerance. Do not trust that your mainstream doctor will look further than an ADHD diagnosis and prescription for Ritalin or Adderall.

Let’s discuss headaches next

Dr. Perlmutter explains that headaches are one of our most common maladies. In the United States alone, more than 45 million people suffer from chronic headaches, 28 million of whom suffer from migraines [3]. He observes that 21-st century medicine remains focused on treating symptoms for what is often a fully preventable problem.

He goes on to explain that an untold number of things can trigger a headache, from a bad night’s sleep or changes in the weather to chemicals in foods, sinus congestion, head trauma, brain tumors, or too much alcohol. The exact biochemistry of headaches, especially migraines, is under active study. He suggests that for those headache sufferers who can’t nail down a reason (and thus a likely a solution) the reason could be undiagnosed gluten sensitivity. [p.170]

He discusses cases of chronic headache sufferers who found great relief once they adopted a gluten-free diet and also recent medical studies. For example, he refers to work by Dr. Marios Hadjivassiliou, who has done extensive studies on headaches and gluten sensitivity. [4] Among his most astonishing work are the brain MRI scans that show profound changes in the white matter of headache patients with gluten sensitivity. The abnormalities are indicative of the inflammatory process. Most of these patients were resistant to normal drug treatments for their headaches, yet once they adopted a gluten-free diet, they were relieved of their suffering.

Dr. Perlmutter concludes the chapter with an Rx to be headache free, in which he includes tips to end the suffering [p. 175]. Amongst other things, he includes diet recommendations (including removing gluten), weight control, physical activity, and stress management.

IMHO: If you suffer with headaches, what do you have to lose (besides the headaches and need for drugs!) by trying his lifestyle recommendations? As Dr. Perlmutter observes:

“The idea that we can treat – and in some cases, totally eliminate – common neurological ailments through diet alone is empowering”

I think that is the key – realizing that we are not victims who, by default, need to be rescued by an external party; that we create our own health with our daily choices, and we are thus empowered to make positive and profound changes. Quite often, the solution can be found within ourselves, no Rx needed.



[2] ]

[3] (accessed 5/13/2013)

[4] M. Hadjivassiliou and R. Grunewald, “The Neurology of Gluten Sensitivity: Science vs. Conviction”, Practical Neurology 4 (2004): 124 – 126.


5 thoughts on “Gluten, ADHD and Headaches…Let’s discuss!

  1. Its so awesome to see some holistic recommendations to a malady commonly treated with pharmaceuticals. The body should function well, if its treated right and given the right raw materials to do so. Looking forward to seeing more posts from W Cubed!

    • Hi Donald! Thanks for commenting! I agree whole-heartedly. We have become too accustomed to disease being “normal”. Ain’t nothing normal about it – we should all be pissed off at this state of affairs!

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Sandra, Thanks for posting these articles! My daughter was diagnosed with mild ADHD in 2nd grade and I never bought in to the medication that was suggested. Instead I focused on a diet which was low in refined and natural sugar, free of red dye (this is a big one), and DHA supplements. It made a huge difference! Take care.

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