Celiac disease and epilepsy

  • July 26, 2022
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In this article

Celiac disease and epilepsy are common conditions that affect millions of people. And, some people have both. In fact, there is an ‘association’ between the conditions. Twice as many people with epilepsy have celiac disease than in the general population, according to a recent study.

So, what is the link between celiac disease and epilepsy?

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an ‘autoimmune’ disorder. When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in things like wheat, barley and rye), their bodies mistakenly see the gluten as a threat, and their immune systems attack their lower intestines. This can cause unpleasant symptoms, such as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. It’s believed about 1% of people have it.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder which causes people to have seizures. A seizure is when there is an uncontrolled discharge of electricity in the brain. About 1.2% of people in the USA are living with epilepsy.

Is there a link between celiac disease and epilepsy?

Studies have found that there seems to be a link between celiac disease and epilepsy, and people with celiac disease are 1.8 times more likely to develop seizures than other people. 

There hasn’t been huge amounts of research into celiac disease and epilepsy. That being said, several small-scale studies do seem to show a link:

  • Research with children shows that kids with celiac disease appear to have brain activity associated with epilepsy (even if they haven’t started having seizures) when they have an EEG scan.
  • Several small studies and case reports have found that when people who have both celiac disease and epilepsy stop eating gluten, their seizures either stop, or reduce significantly.  

If you have epilepsy, you shouldn’t start following a gluten free diet to try and manage your seizures – unless your doctor tells you to do so.

Food and epilepsy: Understand the keto diet

What might explain the celiac disease and epilepsy link?

Right now, we don’t know what’s behind the apparent association between celiac disease and epilepsy. But, there are a few theories:

  • Immune response as a trigger: When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune system becomes very active. This might change how their brains work, and cause seizures.
  • Nutrient deficiency: When people have celiac disease, it’s harder for their bodies to absorb certain nutrients. This means they might not have enough of the vitamins and minerals they need, and that could lead to seizures.
  • Gluten itself: Gluten can cause calcification in the brain (this means small deposits of calcium start to form). Some people speculate that this could trigger seizures.

What we eat: The diabetes and epilepsy link

Getting tested

If you notice you have symptoms of celiac disease and epilepsy, it’s really important to get tested for both. If the tests do reveal you have both conditions, this could help your treatment team as you devise a plan for your care together.  

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