Celiac in College: The Silent Struggles

As soon as your lecture wraps up, you power walk straight to the dining hall. Lunch today lacked appetizing gluten-free options, so you are starving. Your club meeting tonight will have pizza for dinner, but you have to eat now because the group always forgets to order gluten-free crust and you don’t want to bother them about your special order again. As you wait at the salad bar, you see someone drop a crouton into the lettuce bin. No salad for you. You settle for a bowl of plain rice with some grilled chicken, praying that no one contaminated the dish prior to your arrival. Looking around, you realize that you lost your friends in the madness of finding a safe meal, so now you must eat your bland food alone. Better luck tomorrow.

Want to learn more about attending college while following a gluten-free diet? Read “Gluten-Free College Students Living Off Campus” and “How to Talk to Your College Roommate About the Gluten-Free Diet.”

While typical college dining halls are often difficult to safely navigate for students with celiac, less obvious but equally important issues exist beneath the surface. Research indicates that students with celiac face greater struggles in academic and social settings, regardless of their adherence to the gluten-free diet. The condition’s far-reaching impact on the lives of college students creates unique academic and mental-health challenges for the affected students, but recognizing these risks can help them prepare for when they strike.

The hidden challenges

Brain fog

Following gluten exposure, students with celiac often experience “brain fog,” a state of cognitive impairment that hampers both the ability to perform everyday tasks as well as academic work. Because the reaction lasts for weeks, this symptom may interfere with students’ ability to produce high-quality work by the required deadline.

Lower GPAs

A study found that independent of gluten-free compliance, female college students with celiac had an average GPA of 3.30 while female students without celiac had an average of 3.45. So while gluten exposure may worsen the academic difficulties experienced by students with celiac, it appears that something about the nature of the disease itself must be causing this significant difference between the GPAs, since it exists regardless of dietary adherence.

Anxiety and depression

Students with celiac exhibit greater susceptibility to anxiety and depression compared to their peers without the condition, independent of dietary adherence. However, researchers did find a direct correlation between performance anxiety and the duration of a gluten-free diet — patients who had followed the gluten-free diet for a longer period of time exhibited greater levels of performance anxiety. College students already have to deal with the rigorous academic demands of their coursework, and performance anxiety only adds to the difficulty.

A step in the right direction

While colleges can easily address dining-related issues through tweaking their protocols, solutions for the academic and mental-health difficulties are much less straightforward. However, acknowledging the existence of these challenges prepares both students and universities to take action when these issues present themselves. For example, the campus accessibility office should clearly articulate academic accommodations to account for cognitive difficulties following gluten exposure. Also, universities and students can identify problematic behaviors and direct students to the appropriate mental-health and academic resources in the case of anxiety, depression or unusual academic struggle.

I attend college for the academics, so it is frustrating when my disease interferes with my learning. Personally, I do not feel that celiac has hurt my overall academic performance, but brain fog following gluten exposure undoubtedly interferes with my ability to sit through a lecture and complete schoolwork. As much as I would like to say that I have a clear-cut solution for the academic and mental-health problems arising from celiac, I am no researcher and I can only write from my personal experiences. However, I do know that raising awareness of these issues is a step in the right direction to improve the lives of students with celiac.

Originally from Salado, Texas, Kayla Manning is a first-year student at Harvard. Following her diagnosis with celiac disease in 2013, she maintained a strict gluten-free diet with relative ease through her junior high and high school years. However, college life posed unfamiliar challenges and she struggled to adjust to her new dining situation. She hopes that sharing her experiences can help others with their transition to gluten-free dining in college.

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