Diet and Autism: What You Need To Know

by Julie Matthews

Due to recent medical studies, parent reports and research, we know that the road to autism recovery begins with diet. Choosing foods to add and remove from their diet is the very first step to improving the health and well being of children with autism. Certain food substances, most notably gluten and casein, are known to be problematic for the child with autism and should be avoided - and other foods rich in healing nutrients are beneficial when added to children's diets.
Attention to nutrition and specific diets are intended to help balance biochemistry, promote systemic healing, and provide relief of autism symptoms. By adding an autism diet, supplementation, enzymes and consistent healthy nutrition to your autism pediatrician's treatment plan; your child has the opportunity to have better sleep and cognitive ability, less pain and rashes, a positive change in digestion, and improvement in various behaviors. As a veteran biomedical autism nutrition specialist and Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!) Practitioner, I encourage you to discover the opportunity to help your child heal through diet, and share that even the pickiest eaters can make marked improvements. I work with families around the globe as they apply diets to support their child's recovery plan as a complement to behavioral therapies and other treatments. Parents, pediatricians, and nutritionists are observing tremendous results in children whose parents are choosing to implement autism diet into daily family routine.
When autism diets are correctly and diligently implemented by parents, improvement in gastrointestinal problems, diarrhea, constipation, language, learning, focus, attention, eye contact, behavior, sleep difficulties, toilet training, skin rashes/eczema and body pain has been clinically documented. Improvement will vary because every child is different.
There are a number of diets that are used by parents, autism nutritionists and pediatricians to assist with recovery. They include the Gluten-Free Casein-Free (GFCF) Diet, Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Diet, Low Oxalate Diet, Body Ecology Diet, Feingold Diet and the Weston A. Price Diet.
Most parents begin with the GFCF Diet--removing all gluten and casein from the foods they serve their children. With the help of your autism pediatrician and well trained autism nutrition specialist, selecting and implementing an appropriate diet can be one of the first, and most powerful, recovery steps a parent can implement upon diagnosis.
Common physical symptoms of children with autism include diarrhea, constipation, bloating and GI pain, frequent infections, sleeping challenges, and inflammation/pain. Understanding that there are physical as well as behavioral symptoms clarifies that autism is not solely a brain disorder. When we appropriately identify autism as a whole body disorder, we can comprehend how what happens inside the body and cells, affects the brain--and how the food we feed a child affects the body and its biochemistry.
For many children with autism, nutrient deficiencies, imbalanced biochemistry, and digestive problems can play a significant role in these physical conditions. Altering food choices affects these processes and helps improve symptoms--both physical and behavioral.
Poor digestion in children with autism can lead to a condition known as leaky gut, malabsorption of nutrients, inflammatory responses to foods that are not broken down, and a burden to the detoxification system. Nutrients are essential to all biochemical and brain function. Adequate nutritional status requires the consumption of nutrient dense food and proper digestion to breakdown and absorb those foods.
Poor digestion often stems from environmental factors, genetic susceptibility, lack of beneficial bacteria, inflammation, and immune system response to certain foods, and studies have shown leaky gut, low levels of beneficial flora, inflammation and immune response to food in children with autism. Additionally, the response to certain foods such as gluten and casein can create an opiate or inflammatory reaction that can affect the brain--causing foggy thinking--affecting attention, language, and learning.
The gut is an essential component to understand and address in autism. The gut breaks down your child's food so they can have the nutrients needed to support biochemistry and allow the brain to function properly. The largest part of the immune system (70%) is found in the gut--a system often imbalanced in autism causing an inability fight viruses, yeast, and other pathogens properly while contributing a overactive inflammatory and allergic response.
Understanding that gut and brain are connected helps explain WHY autism and overall health are improved through a diet that supports digestion/GI health. According to Hippocrates (the father of modern medicine), "All disease begins in the gut," and this certainly proves true with autism
Removing the offending foods that contribute to inflammation, trigger immune response (food sensitivities), create opiates, and increase toxicity is crucial; and adding foods that can support a healthy ecosystem and provide needed nutrients is essential.
By supporting digestion and biochemistry through diet, parents can help improve autism symptoms. Here are several examples of how good food and nutrients can improve the health of the gut, the whole body's biochemistry, and positively affect the conditions and symptoms of autism - and, empowering actions that you can take when applying diet.
Nutrient Deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies are common among children with autism. Poor quality and limited diets exacerbate this problem. Additionally, supplementation has shown to be supportive and a nutrient dense diet can supply needed nutrients. Specific nutrients are required for complex biochemical processes, and nutrients can only be digested and absorbed through food and supplementation when the GI tract is functioning well.
• Increase the quality and digestibility of food
• Sneak in vegetables for picky eaters
• Juice vegetables and consuming homemade bone broths
• Add supplementation
Leaky Gut and Gut Inflammation. Improving digestion, reducing inflammation, and healing the gut are important steps in overall health and healing. Commonly reported benefits include: reduced diarrhea and constipation, improved behavior, greater language, and less skin rashes.
• Remove foods that inflame the gut such as gluten, casein, and soy
• Add foods that heal the gut and are anti-inflammatory such as antioxidant and probiotic-rich foods
• Add foods that supply beneficial bacteria (probiotics) such as non-dairy yogurt and raw sauerkraut
• Add foods that support beneficial bacteria growth (probiotics)
Yeast Overgrowth. Yeast is a harmful organism that can affect energy level, clarity of thought, and intestinal health. Yeast overgrowth is often triggered by heavy antibiotic use--common in children with autism with poor bacteria-fighting ability. Yeast overgrowth creates gut inflammation and decreases gut function.
• Remove sugars
• Remove yeast-containing foods
• Reduce refined starches and, in some cases, remove them.
• Add probiotic-rich foods
Toxicity and Poor Detoxification When children's detoxification systems are not working optimally or are overburdened by pre-existing toxins, avoiding additional toxins from food is important. Food based chemicals can cross the blood brain barrier and affect the brain, creating hyperactivity, aggression, irritability, and self-injurious behavior.
• Avoid food additives
• Avoid toxins in food supply and meal preparation
• Eat organically
• Add foods that support the liver
Poor Methylation and Sulfation Biochemistry. Methylation, transsulfuration, and sulfation are just one set of biochemical pathways that do not function optimally for many children with autism. These pathways can be supported by avoiding certain substances that are processed (and overburden) by those pathways, and supplying nutrients that are needed (and often in low supply).
• Remove phenolic foods--artificial ingredients, and foods high in natural salicylates, amines and glutamates.
• Improve methylation and sulfation through supplementation
Their diligence at nourishing hope is always worth parent effort. I am seeing measurable positive changes in children whose parents are working hard to correctly and consistently implement diet. As I work with parents, we chart diet and healing progress and carefully record improvement in sleep, behavior, cognitive ability, language, eye contact, aggression, digestive problems, rashes, pain and more.
My clients are relieved to learn that I do not spout the dogma of any one diet. As an Autism Nutrition Consultant and Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!) Practitioner, I practice nutrition intervention focused on improving systemic health and relieving physiological and behavioral symptoms. Autism diets are food-based strategies employed toward this objective. I help parents choose the best initial diet for their child and then work to customize that diet to further meet their specific needs.
When I begin to work with parents, I typically recommend GFCF or SCD to initiate dietary intervention and healing. Additionally, I may suggest just adding fermented foods, soaked grains and nuts, and more vegetables.
I then refine the diet by potentially removing the salicylates, amines, glutamates, or oxalates. This can be done by looking for reactions, but more accurately by eliminating them for a few weeks and then reintroducing them to see how the child reacts.
The easiest and most important initial action, no matter what diet you choose, is to remove artificial ingredients and junk food. Artificial ingredients are highly toxic and very difficult for the liver to breakdown--they are associated with hyperactivity, asthma, aggression, irritability, and sleep disturbances.
Food additives and ingredients to avoid:
• Artificial colors: red #40, yellow #5
• Artificial flavors: vanillin
• Preservatives: BHA, BHT, TBHQ
• Monosodium glutamate: MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and other hydrolyzed items, autolyzed yeast, yeast extract
• Artificial sweeteners
• Trans fats, partially hydrogenated oil found in many commercial mayonnaise, margarine, and peanut butter products, fast foods and fried food, and baked goods.
The most important dietary principle is to start. It sounds simple but start somewhere. Begin with a simple diet change such as getting rid of all artificial ingredients and see what's next.
I know what you are thinking, "My child is picky and very inflexible with eating new foods. I'm never going to be able to get him to eat anything other than wheat and dairy, and never mind anything "healthy." I also understand that you are really wondering if an autism diet will help your child and their symptoms. I have had some very picky eaters in my nutrition practice--many children ate only bread and dairy, others subsisted on just pancakes and fries.
When the body creates opiates from foods, one can become addicted to them and thus crave nothing but those foods, or when yeast overgrowth is present, a preference for only carbs and sugars can result. Children eventually narrow their food choices to include only those that make them "feel better". It's worth trying diet because once the child gets passed the cravings (a few days to a few weeks), they often expand food choices dramatically and it becomes much easier to do.
As we enter 2009, more children are recovering. They are finding relief from autism symptoms. In my practice, I often hear reports from parents that digestive disturbances are often one of the first areas that children find relief as diarrhea or constipation is eliminated. Then children often feel better--from there, they can engage more in school and therapy and I often hear reports that language and behavior improve. The other most common comment I hear to great elation from the parents is sleep improving--supporting the well-being and outlook of the whole family.
I encourage every parent with a child that has autism to try diet--read, learn and try.
It's crucial that parents believe that it's possible for their child to change and improve. By envisioning the changes, you project a positive image that is important for your child and the success of your overall efforts. I've never known a child with autism that did not benefit from dietary intervention, and I've never seen a child's diet that did not eventually expand and improve--increasingly, as the body heals.
I, like you, am committed to helping children with autism get better. Nourishing hope comes from the depths of our hearts and is fueled by love and devotion. Always have hope.