Epilepsy is a neurological condition characterized by repeated seizures. Seizures are surges of electrical activity in the brain that temporarily affect the way a person acts, speaks, or moves. Symptoms vary widely, but common ones include:
There are many types of seizures, but an individual usually has the same or similar symptoms with each seizure. Anyone can develop epilepsy, but it is most common in children and older adults (about 65+).
The reason why someone may have seizures varies from person to person, but head injuries and strokes are common causes. For some people, epilepsy is autoimmune.
In pediatric patients who had epilepsy of an unknown cause, the prevalence of celiac disease was 1.83%. In adult patients who had epilepsy of an unknown cause, the prevalence of celiac disease was 2.27%. (1) Those percentages are higher than the generally accepted 1% of the general population that has celiac disease.
A different study from 2016 found that about 6% of patients with epilepsy tested positive for celiac disease. (2) In these patients, the gluten-free diet was effective for managing seizures.
On the flip side, a Swedish study found that celiac disease patients had a 1.43-fold increased risk of developing epilepsy. (3)
In patients with epilepsy and celiac disease, 40% reported no gastrointestinal symptoms (such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, etc.). (1) For many of these patients, their only celiac disease symptoms were neurological ones.
In short, if you have epilepsy, you have an increased risk of developing celiac disease, and if you have celiac disease, you have an increased risk of developing epilepsy. (3) In patients with both, neurological issues may be their only celiac disease symptoms.
Among epilepsy patients who also had celiac disease, 59% presented with focal seizures. (1)
Other types of epilepsy and seizures linked to celiac disease include (1):
According to the study authors, these associations could indicate that certain areas of the brain may be more susceptible to damage than others in patients with both epilepsy and celiac disease. (1)
There is also CEC syndrome (sometimes called Gobbi syndrome), which refers to patients who have celiac disease, epilepsy and bilateral occipital calcifications. The first description of CEC is from 1970 (4), and subsequent cases from Italy appear to confirm the existence of this unique syndrome. (5, 6), This is a rare condition, but it is a possibility in patients who have celiac disease alongside seizures.
If you have multiple seizures, let your primary care doctor know. Your primary care doctor will likely refer you to a neurologist, which is a doctor who specializes in the brain and nervous system. The neurologist will then conduct a series of tests, often including blood tests and brain scans, to learn more about your brain functioning and what type of seizures you experience.
Epilepsy is treated with antiepileptic medications. If medications do not work, doctors may recommend brain surgery to remove the part of the brain causing the seizures.
For those with both celiac disease and epilepsy, a gluten-free diet can alleviate or eliminate seizures (7), (8). A 2019 research review found that in patients who had both epilepsy of an unknown cause and celiac disease, the gluten-free diet helped manage seizures in 53% of the cases; this was evident from a reduction in seizure frequency, a reduction in antiepileptic drugs, and/or ability to stop taking antiepileptic drugs entirely. (1)
However, the gluten-free diet should not be assumed to be a perfect substitution for antiepileptic drugs. Do not go on the gluten-free diet without speaking to your doctor first and getting tested for celiac disease. Do not stop taking medications without speaking with your doctor first.