Nutrition and Autism by Sudeshna Dasgupta-O'Brien
When Becca, 4 years old, was brought to my office, she was quite apprehensive and cried a little. She did not speak much. She walked up and down the room, and played for a while with dolls and beds, lining up the beds as well as the dolls in a row. Every now and then she made some eye contact with me. Her mother reported that she had some single words, like "cup". and also repeated sentences from movies. Becca was diagnosed with autism at 3 years by a developmental pediatrician.
Jesse, age 7, was also diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. Jesse had some eye contact, although he did not maintain it for long; he also had sensitivity to high-pitched noises such as singing, frequent meltdowns and delayed speech.
These are some of the many faces of autism today.
Nine months later, after being on a gluten-free, casein-free diet and nutritional supplements, Becca is now speaking in sentences she has put together herself: "I'm hot! I want to go swimming!" or, "Mommy, I need cup, please!". She is asking questions. She no longer lines up toys. The second time she came into my office, a month after her first visit, she took the dolls and put them in the doll beds. Her school has also noted that she has improved remarkably.
One month after being on supplements and diet changes, Jesse's mother noted that Jesse was talking more to her and describing details. He was showing more interest in family events. He even sang along with his mother on the way to school, an impromptu song that he made up and was still singing when he got out of the van. Previously he would shout, "STOP SINGING, MOMMY!" when she sang in the car. His school reported that he was having less frequent meltdowns.
Autism has been described as a complex developmental disability that is the result of a neurological disorder, affecting the functioning of the brain. Social interaction, communication and play skills are particularly affected, among other things. So how does paying attention to nutrition help the symptoms of a neurological condition?
The answer is both simple and complex. Simply put, food is fuel for the body, including the brain. The quality of food we eat provides the quality of the building blocks for our cells and tissues. When we eat wholesome balanced foods, we provide the nutrients our bodies need to run all its metabolic processes from repair and rebuilding of tissue, efficient digestion, absorption and removal of waste, building healthy immune systems, burning energy, to detoxifying environmental pollutants that enter our system.
On a more complex level, the Autism Research Institute holds the view that autism is really a multisystem disorder affecting the gut, immune system and the brain. This is based on multiple research studies collected for over 30 years and extensive experience in treating autism. Children with autism have a genetic vulnerability that predisposes them to have an impaired ability to detoxify environmental toxins. When faced with an ongoing assault of toxins, along with an immune system whose development has been stressed by frequent antibiotics and other challenges, these children develop a chronic inflammation of the gut and the brain. Autistic children have inflamed guts, inflamed brains and immune dysregulation.
Some nutritional interventions for autism:
1. Cleaning up the Diet: By removing fast foods, sugary foods, hydrogenated fats, food colorings, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, food additives such as MSG, and providing whole, organic, unprocessed foods as much as possible, the toxin load to the body is reduced.
2. Identifying and removing food allergies and sensitivities. An inflamed gut leads to less effective digestion, which leads to the formation of partially digested proteins. Because of increased permeability of the inflamed gut lining, these can then enter the blood stream as allergic substances that can affect the body and the brain and cause alterations in behavior such as spaciness, moodiness, hyperactivity, and lethargy. Allergies can lead to allergic cravings for the very foods that inflame the gut, which then perpetuates a vicious cycle.
Testing for food allergies is a first step. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt and kamut is a common offending agent. So is casein, a milk protein. When the offending foods are removed, the gut has a chance to heal. Other common culprits are corn, soy and egg.
3. Special diets: Autistic children often have a combination of food-related issues. They may have food reactions to gluten and/or casein, allergies to specific foods, plus yeast overgrowth in their intestines and blood sugar fluctuations. These are the four most common problems seen. So, often these children may have to modify their diet to address all these problems.
4. Nutritional supplements: Why use supplements at all? Because children with autism are often very picky eaters and do not eat a variety of foods. While they may not have obvious deficiencies, they are likely to have suboptimal levels of vitamins and minerals which then hampers the body and brain's ability to function efficiently.
At the very least, the following nutritional supplements are recommended:
1. A good quality multivitamin free of additives and allergenic foods.
2. Omega-3 fatty acids to build healthy cell membranes in the brain and the body.
3. Digestive aids such as probiotics and digestive enzymes to break down proteins. Some children may benefit from digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates and fats as well.
Do all children benefit from nutritional therapy? And to what degree? This varies from child to child. Some children will show marked improvements with the right diet and noticeable worsening when the wrong foods are re-introduced. In general, children with regressive autism, that is those who were developing normally in infancy and start to regress in the second year of life respond better than those in whom developmental delays are present from the start.
While nutrition alone can go a long way, the best results are obtained by following a comprehensive program that also addresses inflammation, oxidative stress and supports detoxification.
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About the Author - Sudeshna Dasgupta-O'Brien
Contact Sudeshna Dasgupta-O'Brien:
Asheville Integrative Medicine