Using a Gluten Free Diet as an Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorders

The following is an article I authored that was published in the newsletter of the Gluten Intolerance Group of Shoreline East, a local group offering tips and advice about going gluten free for people living on the Connecticut Shoreline.  Please visit their blog for some great recipes and advice about a gluten free diet:

Using a Gluten Free Diet as an Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Dietary intervention can be a safe, non-invasive, and often very effective treatment for special needs children that parents can implement themselves.  Since 1967 the Autism Research Institute (ARI) has collected data from almost 25,000 parents with children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) who have completed a questionnaire indicating the effectiveness of various treatments for autism.  Among the dietary interventions, the gluten and casein free diet (GFCF) has been reported to be amongst the most effective, with 65% of respondents indicating some level of improvement.  Personally, I have heard dozens (if not hundreds) of testimonials from parents who report favorably on the GFCF diet.

These results may seem difficult to believe for those who believe autism is exclusively a disease of and in the brain, but there is actually a very plausible scientific explanation behind these results once we understand that autism is often accompanied by many diseases of the gut including upper GI disease, autistic enterocolitis, intestinal dysbiosis, and leaky gut syndrome.

I am not a doctor, but I have learned that “leaky gut” is a rather casual sounding name for an official medical disorder that results in “holes” in the digestive track that are larger than normal, and underdeveloped cilia in the digestive track that allow food to move through too rapidly.  Gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye, most oats, and some other grains) and casein (found in most dairy products) contain peptides (a particle of food protein) that is normally digested and broken down into smaller particles before leaving the digestive tract. Leaky gut allows peptides to enter the bloodstream as complex particles that attach to opiate receptors in the body and brain.  Though not as powerful as opiates such as morphine or heroin, the biochemical reaction to these foods is similar, and the drugs are known to effect bowel function, the immune system, and of course brain function.

In my own experience with my son, who was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum at age two and is now a completely recovered first grader, we first went dairy free (with some skepticism), and then, upon seeing the positive results, went gluten free shortly thereafter, and he remains on a gluten and dairy free diet to this day.  I sympathize with parents who explain how difficult it is to eliminate these foods from a child’s diet – for many of these children, including my own son, these foods comprise most or not all of the existing diet (my son drank roughly 8 bottles of milk a day and ate almost exclusively yogurt, bread, crackers, and white pasta).  I have heard of implementation of the diet gradually, sometimes one meal at a time (breakfast for a couple days, then breakfast and lunch, then dinner too).  But my experience and advice is to go cold turkey and deal with the withdrawal symptoms all at once.  For my son, although the tantrums were plentiful, the removal of dairy (casein) from his diet was one of just a small handful of treatments that we tried that provided a true “light switch” result – the very next day he seemed more aware of his surroundings, more focused, and able to concentrate better with therapists, who commented on the change without being aware of the dietary change.  Removal of gluten did not provide the same sudden results, but it is my understanding that gluten takes much longer to work through the system and to eliminate, thus it is not surprising that the effects are more gradual.

In my opinion, all parents with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders should give the GFCF diet a try.  It can be implemented concurrently with other treatments and therapies and can be overseen by parents with little or no professional oversight.  Unlike some other diets (Feingold, Special Carb), the foods that need to be eliminated are easily identifiable and, more and more frequently, can be found all together in dedicated areas of major supermarkets.  The benefits are both scientifically supported and, perhaps more importantly, anecdotally confirmed by nearly two-thirds of parents who have tried the diet.  Finally, it is a non-invasive form of treatment that can be tried with no side effects and the ability to halt treatment at any time.


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