Diet is a powerful tool. The choices we make about what to eat and what to feed our children have profound impact on health and present a great opportunity to support healing and recovery from autism.
Some parents hesitate to try autism diets (or physicians are slow to suggest them) because they don’t know if (why / how) diet works. One recent news report about autism diets suggested uncertainty about their efficacy, saying it was uncertain whether diet helps the symptoms of autism, or whether it helps the gut (which in turn affects a relief in autistic symptoms). The insinuation was that since they don’t how it’s helping - the ‘autism’ or ‘the gut’ - they don’t know if it’s working at all. This is foolhardy: don’t limit your potential because some ‘experts’ fail to realise why or how diet works! As a Certified Nutrition Consultant with experience supporting hundreds of families with children on the autism spectrum, I will explain to you WHY and HOW diet works.
This will remove any mystery about diet and get you on the road to recovery. The common physical symptoms of children with autism include diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and GI pain, frequent infections, sleeping challenges and inflammation/pain. For many, nutrient deficiencies, imbalanced biochemistry and digestive problems are at the core of these symptoms. These weaknesses in physiological functioning can be directly tied to biochemical processes that are affected by diet - i.e. the absence of requisite nutrients and / or the presence of offending substances. Altering food choices affects these processes and helps improve symptoms.
Why Diet Helps:
A Whole Body Disorder
Historically, autism was considered a ‘mysterious’ brain disorder, implying that it begins and ends in the brain. Through the array of common physical symptoms observed and the breakthrough work of the Autism Research Institute, a more appropriate ‘whole body disorder’ (the brain is affected by the biochemistry generated in the body) perspective of autism has emerged. Martha Herbert MD PhD, who was one of the first to describe autism this way, refers to the brain as ‘downstream’ from the body’s functioning.
Referring to the chart, Whole Body Disorder, you can see the complex set of factors that influence autism (on the right): toxins, environmental factors, digestive health, and inflammation. The right side indicates the effects they can have on the brain. Here’s how imbalanced biochemistry affects the brain and the symptoms of autism:
* Yeast. When there is yeast overgrowth in the body, toxins enter the bloodstream and make their way to the brain where they can cause symptoms ranging from ‘spaciness’, foggy thinking and drunken behaviour.
* When the biochemistry of methylation is not working properly, neurotransmitters cannot be methylated (and therefore are not ‘activated’) as they need to be, increasing the likelihood of anxiety, depression, ADHD, and sleeping issues.
* Inflammation in the gut and brain can be caused by toxins, food sensitivities or bad bacteria or yeast in the gut. This can cause pain that affects behaviour: selfinjurious behaviour, leaning over furniture, eye poking and head banging are all common signs.
Whole Body Disorder
* When detoxification is poor (common with autism), toxins from food and the environment can build up and act like drugs on the brain, (causing irritability, aggression, brain / cellular damage) as with salicylates, artificial ingredients, MSG, mercury and aluminium.
* When digestion is poor and the gut is too permeable (a ‘leaky gut’), the nutrients that are supposed to get through cannot absorb properly. This leads to nutrient deficiencies, which can affect all cellular function including poor brain function.
* Opiates can be created from inadequate breakdown of gluten, casein, and soy leading to symptoms of opiate excess: foggy thinking, insensitivity to pain, opiate addiction and withdrawal and irritability.
According to Hippocrates, “All disease begins in the gut”, and this certainly proves true with autism. As you can see, digestion and gut health affect the brain and autism’s physical symptoms. Food interacts with the gut constantly and can have a profound impact on these symptoms. Removing the offending foods that contribute to inflammation, trigger immune response (food sensitivities), and increase toxicity is crucial and adding foods that support a healthy ecosystem and provide needed nutrients is essential. Understanding that gut and brain are connected helps explain WHY autism and overall health are improved through a diet that supports digestion/GI health and biochemistry. GI health and biochemistry are partners. Biochemistry involves cellular processes that require energy, nutrients and enzymes to function; proper digestion is required to obtain and absorb the nutrients needed for these processes. If there are insufficient nutrients, an inability to digest and absorb nutrients, a limitation on a particular nutrient, or an inability to convert a nutrient to the active and usable form, biochemistry can go awry.
Diet is crucial.