By Julie Matthews, Certified Nutrition Consultant and Autism Diet Specialist
Understanding the role food allergies and sensitivities play in autism is key to helping parents implement diet changes for their children. Food allergies and sensitivities (and their accompanying symptoms) are common in children with autism.
A food allergy (IgE reaction) is an immediate immune response (sometimes life threatening) that includes symptoms such as a rash, hives, sneezing, or anaphylaxis. A food sensitivity (IgG reaction) is a delayed immune response that includes chronic symptoms in the areas of inflammation/ pain, digestion, and energy/mood such as: headaches, GI inflammation, gut pain, diarrhea, constipation, hyperactivity, or anxiety to name a few in these areas. Food sensitivities can also trigger asthma attacks, migraine headaches, and eczema.
Because food allergies and sensitivities affect so many bodily systems, reducing them can make a significant difference in how a child feels and behaves. Parents routinely report that when they remove certain problematic foods from their child’s diet, common symptoms improve, like diarrhea and hyperactivity, and that children feel better and have greater capacity to pay attention. Clear of these immune system reactions, they often make big gains in language and other areas of learning and behavior.
The Most Problematic Foods/substances - Gluten, Casein, Soy, and Corn –
Autism parents are becoming familiar with the omission of gluten and casein, two of the most problematic substances in foods for children with autism. Gluten is the protein in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and commercial oats, and casein is the protein in dairy. Wheat and dairy sensitivities are commonplace today, and not just with autism. Nine million people have gluten intolerance in the US.
Removal of gluten and casein—the gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet—is one of the most beneficial dietary interventions for autism. In addition to gluten and casein being food sensitivities and inflammatory, these foods can also turn into opiate-like compounds that directly affect the brain. These opiates produce foggy thinking, inattentiveness, irritability, addiction to the food, and constipation—all symptoms of morphine use/addiction. Therefore, you can imagine the enormous benefit most children experience when they remove gluten and/or casein from their diets.
When following a GFCF diet however, people commonly over substitute corn and soy in place of gluten and casein. Note though, that soy and corn are also common food sensitivities, and removal of these foods as well can make a profound difference on health, behavior, and attention for many people.
Soy is broken down in the digestive systems by the same enzyme that digests gluten and casein. It is common for parents to substitute soy for dairy. Soy is inflammatory to the gut, it’s known to inhibit thyroid function, contains strong estrogen compounds, and decreases absorption of calcium, magnesium, zinc and other minerals. For these reasons and more, I recommend avoiding soy whenever possible.
Corn is also a common allergen and food sensitivity. Corn is often substituted in place of gluten in many gluten-free foods and snacks such as: cold cereals, tortilla chips, popcorn, cornstarch, pasta (corn-quinoa), and other snack foods that often use corn or corn flour. In addition you can find corn in: dextrose, xanthan gum, xylitol, ascorbic acid (certain forms of vitamin C), caramel color, citric acid, and natural flavor. If you cannot fully avoid corn, ensure that the corn you do consume is organic, non-gmo corn.
Identifying and removing food sensitivities helps the body heal naturally and can improve digestion, behavior, sleep, rashes, and headaches (to name a few) in children with autism. If you have not started any dietary intervention for a child with autism, I suggest you begin with gluten-free and casein-free. If you have been on GFCF for a while, consider doing an additional trial of soy-free and corn-free and see if you find further healing and benefit.
Dietary intervention for autism requires development over time and identifying and removing food sensitivities are essential to overall effectiveness. While reactions/regressions can come and go, removing these common food sensitivities can help create a new level of consistency that allows you to see how you’ve progressed with diet, what is left to investigate. You may be pleasantly surprised how well everyone feels when you refine the consumption of these foods in your family’s diet.
Julie Matthews is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and Autism Diet Specialist, and author of Nourishing Hope for Autism. Visit: NourishingHope.com, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Food Sensitivities Photo Credit: maartyn, Flickr April 15, 2011.