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Dietary Intervention and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)

Posted Jul 02 2009 5:05pm

n546841875_3775 By: Sheri Miller
*Note from the author: This is a summary of what I spoke about during my Diet & Autism presentation. It’s written more in a conversational tone, as I was using it as a reference for myself while I spoke.  Hopefully it may be helpful to someone!
** this article is reprinted with permission by the author

We know that diet can certainly impact many health conditions such as diabetes, Celiac disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.   And it CAN affect autism and related disorders as well.

You may ask: How? Why?
Can what we eat and drink really affect the neurological system – the brain and its functioning?  Yes.  For example, individuals with epilepsy or seizure disorders can have certain foods that may trigger seizures.  What about alcohol? It certainly affects the brain which in turn affects motor control, speech, cognition, social interaction, etc.

The Gut and ASD

When we look at the impact of diet on autism, we must first look at the gut, as this is where food is digested and absorbed.

Anyone have a child with gastrointestinal issues?  History of diarrhea, constipation, excessive gas, undigested food in the stool, bloated belly, pottying problems, colic as an infant, reflux?  These types of symptoms can be very common among those with autism, and research has shown that chronic gastrointestinal symptoms are much more common amongst children with autism than in those without.

The gut is often found to be inflamed in those with autism. This inflammation directly causes many of the symptoms we just mentioned. It can also result in improper or incomplete digestion. As well, when the tissue of the gastrointestinal tract is inflamed, it becomes more permeable – meaning more can be absorbed into the blood stream than usual. Substances that would normally be too large to pass through the gut wall in a healthy individual could be absorbed when the gut is inflamed. This means that things that aren’t supposed to be getting into the blood stream, are getting absorbed. This is often referred to as a “leaky gut” or leaky gut syndrome.

Let’s look at proteins. In a healthy gastrointestinal tract, food proteins are broken down by digestive enzymes into amino acids, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream to be used by the body. The protein itself is much too large to be absorbed, and must be broken down into individual amino acids in order to be absorbed and for the body to make use of it.  However, in a large percentage of those with ASD, the gut is inflamed, digestion is compromised and the gut becomes leaky allowing partially digested proteins to be absorbed into the blood stream.  This can be a big problem. The body doesn’t recognize these partial proteins, as they aren’t supposed to be there.

There are two major complications that may arise:

First – the Immune Response

When the immune system sees any protein or partial protein that it does not recognize as “self”, it will view it as a foreign invader and mount an attack. Similar to how it would respond to a viral or bacterial infection. The immune system will begin to produce antibodies against those proteins, or partial proteins.

For example, if your child eats an apple, and some partially digested apple protein is absorbed into the body when it shouldn’t (because of the “leaky gut”), the body will begin to product antibodies in order to mount an attack on this foreign protein. In essence, the body starts to have an allergic type response to apples. And this can happen with any food, or any partially digested protein that is absorbed. Now your child can be having an allergic type response to potentially dozens of foods that he/she is eating regularly.

Signs or symptoms that this may be happening:
- congestion or fluid in the ears, or frequent ear infections
- nasal congestion or runny nose
- skin rashes or eczema
- dark circles under the eyes
- asthma

Second – the Opiate Peptide Theory

The partially digested proteins (that are absorbed because of the “leaky gut”) can be carried through the blood stream to the central nervous system, or the brain, and act directly on brain receptors.

Gluten, a protein found in many grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats, can be partially broken down to a peptide known as gliadorphin (also called gluteomorphin).
Casein, a protein found in dairy, can be partially broken down to a peptide known as casomorphin.
Gliadorphin and casomorphin are opiate peptides – meaning they are structurally similar to opiate drugs (like morphine and heroin). They can act on opiate receptors in the brain to have an opiate-like effect.
Imagine your child’s developing brain being regularly exposed to opiate substances.

What might you see as signs or symptoms of this opiate effect?

a) Some children will self-limit their diet to foods containing dairy and gluten, avoiding other foods. They may exclusively eat milk, cheese, yogurt, crackers, pizza, macaroni & cheese, toast, cereal, pasta, etc. They might even wake up in the night asking for these foods. Think of addiction and withdrawal – they are seeking out the opiates.

b) How would a child on morphine or heroin behave? What about their development, language and social skills?
- might seem spacey, disconnected, not in tune with surroundings
- could have poor eye contact, speech and/or language issues, developmental delays
- unusual play
- high pain threshold

Various Dietary Interventions Used to Treat ASD (and related disorders)

GFCF diet – gluten free, casein free diet

GFCF + removing other reactive foods (based on IgG allergy testing and/or on observance). Common problem foods are corn and soy. Also eggs and rice.

Feingold diet – removing synthetic food additives like artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, as well as artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Most also remove MSG. They promote natural, organic foods free of pesticides, herbicides and artificial hormones.  Especially helpful in ADD/ADHD

SCD – Specific Carbohydrate Diet
This diet is aimed at healing the gut.  Eat mostly proteins (meats, nuts, beans, eggs), vegetables, and some fruits.  Avoiding grains, starches and most sugars.


Using digestive enzymes

Ben’s photo diary:


November 21, 2007
This is the day we decided to start the GFCF diet.
Notice the lack of eye contact, dark circles under the eyes, rashes around his mouth….
January 3, 2008

Ben had been GFCF for approximately 6 weeks, but we hadn’t yet removed any other foods. We also hadn’t begun any biomedical interventions.
March 5, 2008

In January we began treating Ben for yeast overgrowth, and started probiotics and digestive enzymes.
In February we began to remove other foods that he was reacting to, as shown on IgG testing and through our own observations. We also had removed MSG, artificial colors & flavors, etc.

((Thank you Sheri for this awesome article!  Wish we could have all been there in person to see it!))

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