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Unravelling the Connection: Food Allergies, Food Sensitivities, and ADHD

Updated: Nov 7, 2023



When it comes to understanding the relationship between food allergies, food sensitivities, and ADHD, the landscape can be complex. As a nutritionist specializing in ADHD and gut health, I aim to shed light on this intricate connection.


It’s a fascinating topic - the differences between food allergies and sensitivities. It's really important to understand how our bodies react to different foods. Let’s also explore the interesting link between ADHD and celiac disease.


Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities:


Food allergies involve an immune system response triggered by specific foods. The immune system identifies certain proteins in the food as harmful, leading to an allergic reaction. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, including hives, itching, swelling, difficulty breathing, and even anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction. Common food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, eggs, milk, wheat, and soy.

Food allergies usually occur due to a person's genetic predisposition. When an allergic individual comes into contact with a specific food, their immune system perceives it as a threat and releases immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These antibodies trigger the release of histamine and other chemicals, resulting in an allergic reaction.


Food sensitivities, on the other hand, are non-immune responses that do not involve the release of histamines or other immune mediators. These symptoms can be subtle and appear as digestive problems, skin issues, headaches, or changes in behaviour. Sensitivities differ from allergies in that they may be affected by the amount of trigger food consumed. In some cases, smaller amounts of the trigger food may be tolerated. Common food sensitivities include lactose, gluten, certain additives, and food chemicals such as salicylates or amines.



The causes of food sensitivities are more diverse and can involve multiple factors.

Here are a few additional causes of food sensitivities and some common symptoms associated with them:


Enzyme deficiencies: Certain individuals may lack specific enzymes required to break down certain food components. For example:

  • Lactose intolerance: When your body doesn't produce enough lactase, the enzyme that helps digest lactose (found in dairy products), you may experience uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhoea, and abdominal discomfort after consuming foods that contain lactose.

  • Histamine intolerance: If you have difficulty breaking down histamine, a compound commonly found in fermented foods, aged cheeses, and cured meats, you may experience symptoms such as headaches, flushing, hives, nasal congestion, and digestion problems.

Food chemicals and additives: Some individuals may be sensitive to naturally occurring chemicals or artificial additives present in certain foods. Examples include:

  • Salicylates: Salicylates are present in different fruits, vegetables, and spices and may cause headaches, skin rashes, digestive issues, and behavioural changes in people who are sensitive to them.

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG): Some people may experience symptoms such as headaches, flushing, sweating, and heart palpitations after consuming a flavour enhancer found in numerous processed foods and restaurant meals.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: Although not the same as celiac disease, some people may have similar symptoms after consuming foods that contain gluten. These symptoms may include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and joint pain.


Food sensitivities related to gut health: Food sensitivities can be caused by imbalances in gut bacteria or a compromised gut barrier function. If you have conditions such as leaky gut syndrome or dysbiosis, your intestinal permeability may increase. This can result in food particles entering your bloodstream and causing an immune response. There is a wide range of symptoms associated with this condition, including digestive problems, skin issues, fatigue, joint pain, and mood changes.

Please keep in mind that food sensitivities can vary from person to person. Not everyone will have identical symptoms or reactions to the same foods.



So, what about Celiac Disease?


Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition triggered by the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Recent research has found a fascinating connection between ADHD and celiac disease. Research indicates that people with ADHD might be more likely to have celiac disease than those who do not have ADHD.

Here are some key findings from studies exploring this relationship:

  1. Prevalence of celiac disease in ADHD: Some research shows that people with ADHD have a higher likelihood of having celiac disease than those without ADHD.

  2. Improvement in ADHD symptoms with a gluten-free diet: Research has shown that people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity who switch to a gluten-free diet may experience a reduction in ADHD symptoms.

  3. Shared immune and genetic factors: Celiac disease and ADHD share a common link in their complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors. Immune system genes, specifically the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 alleles, are associated with both conditions, indicating a possible shared genetic vulnerability.

  4. Nutrient deficiencies and brain function: Celiac disease can cause problems with absorbing nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrient deficiencies have been linked to cognitive impairment and may make ADHD symptoms worse.

While these studies provide intriguing insights, it's important to note that the research is still evolving, and more studies are needed to establish a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between celiac disease and ADHD. It is essential to acknowledge that people with ADHD may not necessarily have celiac disease. Therefore, a gluten-free diet is not a universal recommendation and may not be appropriate for most people with ADHD. Consequently, it is crucial to consult with healthcare professionals for accurate diagnosis and personalized guidance regarding dietary interventions if you have concerns or digestive symptoms.



What solutions are available?


As a nutritionist, I focus on providing personalized care for my clients' symptoms during our clinic sessions. I work closely with clients to assess their specific needs and develop tailored strategies to address their concerns. When dealing with food allergies, sensitivities, and their possible effect on ADHD symptoms, there are two commonly used techniques: elimination diets and the 5R approach.


Elimination Diets: Elimination diets involve the systematic removal of specific foods or food groups suspected of causing adverse reactions. By eliminating potential trigger foods for a designated period, clients can observe changes in symptoms and evaluate their individual responses. This process allows for identifying specific food sensitivities and helps determine which foods may contribute to ADHD symptoms.


The 5R Approach is a framework commonly used in functional medicine and nutrition to address gut health problems, such as food sensitivities. It is a comprehensive approach that stands for the 5R’s:

  1. Remove: Identify and remove potential triggers, such as allergenic or inflammatory foods, from the diet.

  2. Replace: Incorporate nutrient-dense and easily digestible foods to support optimal nutrition.

  3. Reinoculate: Support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria by introducing probiotics and fermented foods.

  4. Repair: Promote gut healing through targeted nutrients and supplements that support the intestinal lining.

  5. Rebalance: Focus on maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle by addressing stress management, sleep, and exercise.

Working with a nutritionist or dietitian who is experienced in the 5R approach can provide guidance and support throughout the process, ensuring a comprehensive and individualized approach to managing food sensitivities and gut health concerns.


Supervision and Professional Guidance: Carrying out elimination diets or implementing the 5R approach should always be done under the supervision and guidance of a qualified healthcare professional. They can assess the individual's medical history, and nutritional needs, and monitor progress throughout the process. Professional supervision helps ensure the diet is appropriately designed, nutritional requirements are met, and potential risks are minimized.


Plus, working with a nutritionist offers personalized advice, continuous assistance, and the opportunity to overcome any obstacles or issues that may arise during dietary changes.


Don't forget to book your free, no-obligation discovery call, and talk to Sarah about any concerns you may have concerning food intolerances, gut health and ADHD symptoms.




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