More than 65 thousand school-aged children in Australia have autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that cause emotional, physical and financial struggles for parents and kids alike(1). In just three years, the number of children diagnosed with ASD increased by 55 per cent. With such staggering statistics, we looked at the current research to determine whether simple dietary modifications could be the key to helping our kids feel happier and healthier.
The opioid effect
Many foods contain chains of amino acids called peptides that, in some people, behave like opioids in the body, or cause an excess of other substances the body recognises as opioids(2). Peptides derived from gluten, a protein in wheat, and casein, a protein in dairy products, are thought to be the main culprits(2). Usually, these peptides are broken down and the amino acids are used around the body before the body has a chance to register them as opioids. Some children with ASD may produce less of the enzyme peptidase, which is responsible for breaking down these peptides. The opioid-like peptides build up in the body, binding to and activating receptors in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract. This results in a number of biochemical reactions that cause the “opioids” to have morphine-like effects in the brain and spinal fluid, which present as ASD symptoms such as repetitive behaviours and poor communication skills(2,3).
Should you remove gluten and casein from your child’s diet?
Most of the recent research is based on observations of autistic children given gluten- and casein-free diets. No available studies have conclusive data suggesting removing gluten and casein from the diet directly reduces autistic behaviours. However, ask the parents and teachers and we get a different story. Most studies reported a majority of the participants’ parents noticed an improvement and would continue to give their children gluten- and casein-free diets(4,5).
Things you can do
If your child is struggling with autism, you may see improvement with these simple tools.
Try an elimination diet
It’s important not to launch into a full elimination diet without first speaking to a nutritionist with your child. They will be able to help you eliminate and reintroduce foods without compromising your child’s overall nutrition. While the data doesn’t necessarily support gluten- and casein-free diets, you might see an improvement in your child like many other parents have.
Make sure your child’s nutrition is adequate
A nutritionist can help you assess any nutritional deficiencies that may be aggravating autistic behaviours. Autistic children have significantly lower levels of vitamin B6 than non-autistic kids, but topping up on this vitamin is as simple as adding in a couple of bananas and chicken throughout the week(6). Vitamin B6 plays a huge role in making neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that regulate mood, behaviour and sleep.
Make bed time better
A healthy bed time routine can play a huge role in improving behavioural outcomes in kids with ASD(7,8). Maximise your child’s sleep quality by removing screens and dimming lights one hour before sleep time and trying relaxation techniques like slow breathing or listening to classical music.
Daily music therapy, coupled with regular appointments with a specialised music therapist, is strongly correlated to improved social skills in children with ASD(9). Much of this is due to children with ASD understanding emotions better via music than through spoken words.
1. ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, 2009 and 2012
2. van De Sande, M, van Buul, V & Brouns, F 2014, ‘Autism and nutrition: the role of the gut-brain axis’, Nutrition Research Reviews, no. 27, pp.199-214, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed>.
3. Millward, C, Ferriter, M, Calver, S & Connell-Jones, G 2008, ‘Gluten- and casein-free diets for autistic spectrum disorder’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, April, vol. 2, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed>.
4. Elder, J, Shankar, M, Shuster, J, Theriaque, D, Burns, S & Sherrill, L 2006, ‘The gluten-free, casein-free diet in autism: results of a preliminary double blind clinical trial’, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 413-20, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed>.
5. Navarro, F, Pearson, D, Fatheree, N, Mansour, R, Hashmi, A & Rhoads, J 2015, ‘Are ‘leaky gut’ and behavior associated with gluten and dairy containing diet in children with autism spectrum disorders?’, Nutritional Neuroscience, vol. 18, no. 4, pp.177-184, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed>.
6. Curtis, L, & Patel, K 2008, 'Nutritional and environmental approaches to preventing and treating autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a review', Journal Of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, vol.14, no.1, pp. 79-85, <http://ebscohost.com>.
7. Malow, B, Adkins, K, Reynolds, A, Weiss, S, Loh, A, Fawkes, D, Katz, T, Goldman, S, Madduri, N, Hundley, R, & Clemons, T 2014, 'Parent-Based Sleep Education for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders', Journal Of Autism & Developmental Disorders, vol.44, no.1, pp. 216-228, <http://ebscohost.com>.
8. Vriend, J, Corkum, P, Moon, E, & Smith, I 2011, 'Behavioral Interventions for Sleep Problems in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: Current Findings and Future Directions', Journal Of Pediatric Psychology, vol.36, no.9, pp. 1017-1029, <http://ebscohost.com>.
9. Brondino, N, Fusar-Poli, L, Rocchetti, M, Provenzani, U, Barale, F, & Politi, P 2015, 'Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorder', Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, pp. 1-31, <http://ebscohost.com>.