Celiac Disease is generally understood to be a gastrointestinal disorder that affects digestion after a person eats certain foods. But did you know that several behavioral and psychological problems are also symptoms of undiagnosed celiac disease? This is particularly true in young children. Typically, young children are unable to express what they might be feeling beyond a “tummy ache.” The first signs a parent may see that indicate something is wrong could be behavioral. In these cases, it might be difficult to figure out that what looks like a behavioral disorder might actually be symptoms of Celiac Disease. So, what do behavioral issues have to do with Celiac Disease in children, and how can you tell if your child has Celiac Disease?
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder that can affect any organ in the body but most commonly manifests in the gut, causing gastrointestinal discomfort and pain. It is also associated with certain changes in brain function, which affect cognition (or reasoning), memory and mood.
Eating foods containing gluten trigger symptoms associated with Celiac Disease. Gluten is a protein that is found in certain grains like wheat, barley and rye. When the gluten enters the body, the immune system attacks the small intestine and causes damage to the intestinal wall. The damage prevents proper absorption of nutrients. And the attack by the immune system causes pain and discomfort in the stomach and intestines.
Common Celiac Disease Symptoms
The most common gastrointestinal symptoms of Celiac Disease in children include:
- Gas and bloating
- Abdominal Pain
Celiac Disease also commonly presents itself as psychological symptoms like:
- Brain Fog and other cognitive problems
- ADHD (Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
Children who have undiagnosed Celiac Disease often exhibit psychological and behavioral problems that look like ADHD, anxiety, depression, aggression and sleep disorders, along with gastrointestinal issues.
The Brain-Gut Connection
The brain and the digestive system, or gut, speak to each other through a complex system of cells, neurons, neurotransmitters and nerves connected to the enteric system. The enteric system is located in the lining of the gastrointestinal system and is made up of over 100 million nerves that run from the esophagus in the throat to the rectum. The communication between brain and the gut can go both directions. Even the thought of food can trigger a growling sensation of hunger or the release of digestive fluids into the stomach before eating. And intestinal distress can trigger a response in the brain. Damage to the intestinal lining also can create problems in the brain. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether the gastrointestinal issues are caused by—or are causing— stress, anxiety, depression or other psychological issues.
In children who can’t otherwise communicate what they are feeling, behavioral issues stemming from gastrointestinal problems might appear. If your child is having trouble sleeping, remembering things, concentrating or is displaying signs of aggression and/or anxiety, he or she might be suffering from Celiac Disease.
Since Celiac has a hereditary component, doctors will often look at a child’s family history to see if Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance is present. They will also check for other Celiac Disease risk factors along with the behavioral issues for proper diagnosis and treatment.
If your child has been displaying unexplained aggression, anxiety or depression along with gastrointestinal discomfort, or you have a family history of Celiac Disease, you may want to talk with your pediatrician.
Have you considered your child’s behavioral problems might be a result of Celiac Disease? Has your child been misdiagnosed with ADHD that was really Celiac? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.