Feeding Your Kids Gluten Can Cause Leaky Gut Syndrome and Depression (Here is How to Avoid it)

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The gluten-free diet and its products are everywhere. Is the diet fashionable, all hype, or a healthy choice? Perhaps you have considered the diet for yourself, but what about your kids?

There are a number of reasons your children may benefit from the gluten-free diet. In this article I’ll show you these reasons and give you tips to make the diet easier on you and your child.


We now know that gluten is difficult to digest, if not entirely indigestible, for a large percentage of the population. One of the primary components of gluten is a protein called gliadin. Gliadin releases a compound called zonulin that regulates the “tight junctions” that make up the intestinal barrier—a malfunction of this mechanism is what we call leaky gut syndrome.

Alessio Fasano, MD—a pioneer in gluten intolerance and celiac disease research, and the director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center—led the team that discovered zonulin in 2000. Fasano explains that there are two major stimuli found to release zonulin in everyone. One stimulus is bacteria in the small intestine, where it should not be. It starts to sit there and steal nutrients.

The other stimulus is gluten. As mentioned earlier, one of the elements of gluten is gliadin which, when introduced to the cells that line the body and flat surfaces, releases zonulin. This occurs in everyone. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, the amount of zonulin is greater, and the door to the intestinal barrier stays open much longer, allowing not only gluten to pass through but toxins as well. In someone without gluten intolerance, their immune system quickly addresses the issue.

Based on the most recent research, Joseph Pizzorno, ND, editor in chief of Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal, estimated that 66 percent of people have an unfavorable response to gluten. Twenty-three percent of people studied actually develop antibodies to grain proteins, though only three percent of the study population truly had celiac disease. Avoiding the production of zonulin and the corresponding negative responses, then, is beneficial to a large percentage of the population.

If your child is sensitive to gluten, his or her digestive tract will not absorb nutrients properly. This will result in nutritional deficiencies with the possibility of several other conditions and diseases. This can cause immune system exhaustion, among other things.

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A study from Italy shows that the longer a gluten-intolerant individual consumes gluten, the greater their chance of developing autoimmune diseases like thyroid disease and diabetes. In children with celiac disease, the risk increased from five percent at age two to near 35 percent by age 20.

The 3 types of gluten intolerance

There are three types of gluten intolerance: celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis (Duhring’s disease), and non-celiac gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine resulting in the inability to absorb nutrients properly. It can result in 130 different symptoms. Duhring’s disease is an autoimmune condition that results in an extremely itchy skin rash. For some, this can lead to the damaging of the immune system and small intestine. Non-celiac gluten intolerance/sensitivity may include the same symptoms as celiac disease, but without the damage to the small intestine.

Wheat allergies are on the rise. They can start in infancy and often subside by age one. Some speculate that the rise in this allergy is due to the increased amount of protein (gluten precursors) in wheat crops. Therefore, if your child is allergic only to wheat, avoiding all gluten is unnecessary. However, it may still be a healthier choice, given the digestive issues most people have with gluten.

Digestive issues

Common digestive symptoms that would indicate a problem with gluten include: anemia, bloating, chronic diarrhea or constipation, flatulence, nausea, vomiting, weight problems, an inability to absorb nutrients, and leaky gut.

Leaky gut syndrome is new to a lot of people, so I’ll explain it here. The mucous membranes in the digestive tract have two roles: They prevent undigested food, bacteria, and toxins from leaking outside the digestive tract, and they absorb nutrients. A healthy mucous membrane has small pores (or tight junctions) to prevent harmful things from leaking into the digestive tract. When they are loose, undigested food, bacteria, and toxins leak through these membranes and flow into the bloodstream—this is known as “increased intestinal permeability” or, more commonly, “leaky gut.” Leaky gut has been linked to gluten sensitivity, which is commonly found in those with celiac disease and autism.

Behavioral issues

Children with gluten sensitivity often display behavior similar to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or attention deficit disorder (ADD). Other symptoms include the inability to concentrate, mood swings, irritability, and depression. Along with alleviating some of these symptoms, the gluten-free diet has helped many kids with autism.

Nutritional deficiencies and systems issues

Nutritional deficiencies are common in kids and adults with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. The inflammation caused in the digestive tract wears down the follicles (villi) responsible for absorbing nutrients and moving the food along the tract. If your child is deficient in vitamin D, folate (folic acid), or essential fatty acids, he/she may be intolerant to gluten.

Once the cycle of gluten damage begins, every part of your child’s body can be affected, including endocrine (hormones), immune, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, skeletal, and urinary systems.


Now that we’ve explored the health risks of eating gluten for those who are gluten-intolerant, here are some important things to know should you decide to take you child gluten-free.


If you find that a gluten-free diet alone is not helping your child’s symptoms, consider having him or her avoid dairy as well. It is not difficult to do these days as there are some notable dairy-free alternatives available now like Earth Balance buttery spreads; Daiya or Follow Your Heart vegan cheese; and almond, soy, rice, and hemp milks. Be sure the brands of milk are gluten-free.

Non-food items that contain gluten

Some children are not only sensitive to gluten food, but also to nonfood items. Kids are notorious for putting their fingers in their mouths. Play dough, clay, paste, and paper mâché all can contain gluten and can be easily ingested. Look for gluten-free brands or make your own.

Helpful meal tips for kids

When your child is new to the gluten-free diet, you may find yourself saying, “You can’t have that” over and over. Instead, try to concentrate on what your child can eat. Get your child involved in their diet. Have them ask manufacturers and restaurant staff questions. Sooner or later they will need to ask for themselves. Start with something small like ordering a salad without the croutons or a burger without a bun.

Sports events and school birthday celebrations can be particularly taxing on your child. While other kids are eating gluten-filled treats, they may feel left out. Find out what snacks will be served at the event and pack your child something similar, but make it extra-special. Create a decoration on the treat that they particularly enjoy or make the treat in a fun shape. Better yet, make it from their favorite ingredients.

Junk food in moderation vs. always healthy food

While you may wish to give your kids only nutritious food, kids on a gluten-free diet already feel deprived enough. If you wish to give your child sweets and healthy treats, consider whole grain snacks and cereals along with an occasional sugary treat. Try substituting a less refined sugar like evaporated cane juice for granulated sugar, or turbinado sugar for brown sugar. However, you should still adhere to the adage “everything in moderation.”

If you know your child will be consuming large amounts of sugar, you can prepare their liver ahead of time by drinking plenty of water—have them continue to do so for two or three days afterwards. This will help flush toxins from the liver.

Menu planning

Allow them to participate in menu planning as this will increase the likelihood of them eating what is on their plate. Of course, you will need to educate them on a balanced diet first.

Some kids enjoy the attention when they first begin the gluten-free diet, but that is usually short-lived. They begin to complain about food and feel deprived when they cannot eat what their friends or other family members eat. Make meals fun.


If you suspect that your child has a problem with gluten, have your doctor test for celiac disease first. If the tests are negative, have your child tested for an allergy to wheat. If your child’s doctor rules out other causes, you should still consider the gluten-free diet. Rate each of his/ her symptoms prior to beginning the diet and then note any changes after four weeks. Be sure to introduce new grains one at a time.

By Carla Spacher

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