Is There a Link Between Gluten and Aggression in Children?

Gluten is a popular substance to demonize, and gluten-free foods are all the rage among many consumers. People with celiac disease have a real and often severe reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. Some people who aren’t diagnosable as having celiac may still be sensitive to gluten, and it is possible that a child sensitive to gluten could struggle with behavior issues as a result. Aggression in a child can be troubling, especially if it seems to go beyond the typical frustrations or outbursts. Research is still mixed, but there just may be a connection between aggressive behaviors and gluten in the diet.

Does Your Child Have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?

You don’t have to be diagnosed with celiac disease to have an issue with gluten. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, about 18 million Americans are sensitive to gluten. Compare this to the estimated three million who struggle with celiac disease and you can see the extent of the issue. Someone sensitive to gluten may experience abdominal cramps, headaches, fatigue or a foggy sensation. There is no conclusive diagnostic test for gluten sensitivity, but your doctor can help you determine through the process of exclusion if your child is sensitive.

Gluten and Aggression

Celiac disease has been studied more than gluten sensitivity, but some of what researchers have found out about celiac and behavior may be applicable to children sensitive to gluten. Certain behaviors have been reported in many cases of children with celiac disease, including hyperactivity and other symptoms similar to those seen in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

The disease is also known to cause symptoms that are related to mental health and that impact mental well-being. These include fatigue, irritability and poor sleep. For a child experiencing these symptoms, aggression may be a natural response. The feeling of being easily irritated or tired and not getting enough sleep can easily lead a child to act out in ways that seem inappropriate.

Food and Mood

Another piece of evidence that it is possible for diet to initiate aggression is the connection between the digestive system and the brain. Research has shown that 95 percent of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter, is in the digestive tract. Serotonin plays an important role in mood, particularly aggression. It helps to modulate anger and keep aggressive tendencies in check. Someone with too little serotonin is more aggressive. With so much serotonin made in the gut, it makes it very possible that substances in food, like gluten, can affect mood.

Gluten-Free Diet: The Real Test

Researchers have not been able to definitively answer the question of gluten and aggression in children, but there have been many reported cases of gluten-free diets helping children manage their behaviors. Diets free of both gluten and casein, a protein found in dairy that may also be implicated in behavior challenges, may be a useful tool for some children. The research on this diet and how it impacts behavior is mixed, but many parents report that it has helped.

The only way to really know if eliminating gluten would help your child better manage his outbursts of aggression is to try it. Gluten is not a nutrient that your child needs, but in eliminating it you may inadvertently prevent him from getting other important nutrients. For this reason, it is important that you only try a gluten-free diet under the guidance of your pediatrician or a dietitian.

Behavioral Support

An interesting finding from the few studies that have been done on eliminating gluten for children with behavior challenges is that parents report improvements more often than clinicians. What this means is that parents may be biased and may see improvements through wishful thinking, but measurable changes don’t really exist. What researchers also see sometimes is a placebo effect. Some children in these studies change their behaviors possibly because parents changed how they interacted with them.

What this tells us is that whether or not gluten and aggression are linked, how you as a parent react to, support and guide your child is more important than anything. You may want to experiment with diet, but the better way to help your child is with appropriate behavioral support. A behavioral health professional can help you and your child by guiding you through exercises and practices that will help your child learn to better manage his aggressive feelings and behaviors.