Nutritional intervention is not a cure for autism. However empirical evidence indicates that it does produce improvements in terms of the symptoms presented by children and young adults on the autism spectrum. An important factor to consider is to ensure appropriate implementation of the dietary modification and be prepared to sustain it on long term basis rather than simply expecting ‘overnight miracles’. A big part of the behavioural and physiological symptoms displayed in autism have underlying biochemical triggers from compromised gastrointestinal condition which is influenced by the kind and fate of ingested food in the gut. Perhaps this fact is tacitly obeying the maxim that ‘we are what we eat’ after all.
It should be noted that children on the spectrum often have compromised digestion abilities, gut inflammation, detoxification issues, and imbalance in gut microflora (deficiency in beneficial bacteria and overgrowth of yeast). Consequently, in a scenario where there is pronounced yeast overgrowth and compromised detoxification system in the gut, increased yeast toxins can accumulate, pass through the blood-brain barrier and finally reach the brain where it can produce physiological effects such as foggy thinking, and hyperactivity as often seen in some children on the autism spectrum. Diets that encourage the growth of these culprit yeasts are obviously not advisable.
In another example, the compromised digestion apparatus in an autistic body engenders the improper breakdown of gluten (special protein found in wheat, oat, rye and barley meals) and casein (the type of protein found in dairy milk, cheese and whey) into morphine-like products (gluteo-morphine and caseo-morphine) which have physiological effects on the brain by mimicking opioids with associated manifestations such as foggy thinking, decreased sensitivity to pains, inattentiveness, mysterious feelings of elation/pleasure and sometimes, unexplained giggling or euphoria. For some time, during my experience at CDC, I was actually curious about one of our lovely students here, a young adult on the autism spectrum, who seemed to sporadically get into a state of peculiar elation, absent-minded day-dreaming, mysterious amusement with nothing in particular accompanied with uncalled-for giggling/smiling episodes which are usually inappropriate.
Things to Consider…
Each child on the autism spectrum is unique. Therefore it is advisable to seek professional guidance such as from the child’s paediatrician or trained dietician before commencing dietary modifications. However below is a general insight to consider on how nutritional intervention benefits children on the autism spectrum.
Gluten is found in wheat flour, rye, oat and barley while casein is present in dairy milk, cheese, whey and ice-cream. It is advisable to significantly reduce or possibly eliminate these from the diet of a child on the autism spectrum. Different research findings suggest that improper digestion of these substances in the compromised gastro-intestinal tract of the concerned child leads to production of opioid (opiates) derivatives from gluten and casein which can have morphine-like effects on the brain including foggy thinking, decreased sensitivity to pain, feelings of elation or euphoria, decreased alertness and altered cognition.
Sugars: One of the common conditions in autism is yeast overgrowth in the gut. Yeasts thrive on sugars which they metabolize, producing alcohol in the process. Effect of this excess alcohol on the body system can include impaired reasoning, hyperactivity and manifestations akin to ‘drunken behaviours’. Thus excessive consumption of sweetened food items is not advisable for the child on the autism spectrum.
A child on the spectrum is likely to suffer from nutrient deficiency in terms of vitamins and minerals needed to perform some biochemical processes required for optimal functioning. Nutrient-rich supplements are helpful. The children will also benefit from antioxidants to reduce gut inflammation. Also, probiotics (non dairy yoghurts) fortified with beneficial bacterial will help to improve intestinal health and gut microbes balance.
Inasmuch as the Children’s Developmental Centre is committed to doing its best towards improved functionality in our children and young adults on the autism spectrum, parents too can complement efforts when they are availed with insightful information such as provided above. Nutritional intervention is not a cure for autism but its positives will enhance the mental and physical health of the concerned child thus making him or her better positioned to benefit from other types of services such as functional education and behavioural therapy traditionally provided at the centre.
-Lanre Fashina (Media Support Officer at Children’s Developmental Centre)