This April, for Autism Awareness Month, I will be doing my part to educate about the autism epidemic, and what treatments are available for children affected by this condition.
The first step in a treatment program for autism is dietary modification. Because children with autism often have very sensitive digestive systems, the diet chosen for each child is unique and must take into account allergies, food sensitivities, pathogenic yeast, leaky gut syndrome, blood sugar balance, not to mention appealing to picky eaters!
Without modifying the diet, any further treatments including supplementation, chelation, or pharmaceutical interventions will not be as effective. The dietary changes are the most difficult to make, but yield incredible results.
There are several diets that are beneficial when treating autism; however, often one or more diets need to be combined to achieve the best possible results. This depends on the unique presentation of each individual child, and even dietary interventions cannot be implemented with a cookie-cutter approach.
Each diet should be implemented one at a time, starting at the top of the list (below). This allows for a 3 month trial period of each diet before adding another one on. This also helps to monitor which diets are helping, and eases uncomfortable healing reactions by slowing the speed of recovery. Dietary changes are difficult for both the child and the family to make, so starting with one diet at a time makes things less overwhelming. Although children with autism can be incredibly picky eaters, their resistance to eating new foods does improve as they overcome allergic addictions, resolve yeast overgrowth, and balance blood sugar levels.
The 6 Diets for Autism:
*The first 4 diets are the most important and effective. The final 2 diets are only used if results are not obtained with the other diets.
1. Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet (GF/CF Diet)
In this diet, gluten (found in certain grains) and casein (found in dairy) are eliminated from the diet. Both gluten and casein are commonly reactive foods, and the GF/CF diet is the gold standard diet for children with autism, ADHD, and asthma. Greater than 60% of children with autism show significant improvement with this diet, and often results show in a short period of time. Generally speaking, a minimum 3-week trial is required when eliminating casein, and a minimum 3-month trail when eliminating gluten as gluten remains in the system longer. As with any therapeutic diet, the child can appear worse before they get better as withdrawal symptoms kick in. Many children will suffer withdrawal from gluten and casein, including night sweats, anger, anxiety, cognitive dysfunction and other transient symptoms. The reason for this is not only the child’s addiction to these allergenic foods, but also the opiate mimicking effects that both gluten and casein peptides have on the child’s brain.
2. Specific Food Reaction Diet
This diet involves elimination of specific foods that each individual child may be reactive to. This reaction may be an IgE allergy (such as anaphylaxis to peanuts), an IgG food sensitivity, or an intolerance (such as lactose intolerance). IgE allergies are usually very obvious as an immediate and often life-threatening reaction occurs subsequent to eating or contacting that particular food. IgE allergies can also be tested for by an allergist. IgG food sensitivities difficult to identify as reactions can take several days to manifest, and produce more vague symptoms such as skin conditions, digestive discomfort or behavioural issues. IgG food sensitivities can be tested by a naturopathic doctor via finger prick blood test. Intolerances can be any foods that just don’t agree with your digestive system, and intolerances are not related to how the immune system reacts to individual foods.
The six most common food reactions are: wheat, dairy products, eggs, peanuts, corn and soy.
Food additives can also can reactions (sulfites, nitrites/nitrates, MSG, dyes, aspartame, etc). Generally speaking, choosing fresh, organic, whole foods over processed food/junk food/candy will help avoid these sneaky additives.
3. Anti-Yeast Diet
Yeast (Candida albicans) overgrowth is extremely common among children with autism (ADHD, allergies, asthma also). Presence of yeast can be determined via signs and symptoms, but will also show up with Organic Acids testing and often IgG testing, which are 2 common tests that a naturopathic doctor would administer for a child with autism. Yeast overgrowth has a wide range of symptoms including: bloating, thrush, vaginal infections/jock itch, fungal nail infections, swelling/water retention/weight gain, fatigue, depression, brain fog/poor memory, chronic nasal congestion, insomnia, sugar cravings, and joint/muscle pain. Children who have used steroids (ex. hydrocortisone cream for eczema, steroid inhaler for asthma, etc) or frequent antibiotics are at a significant risk for developing yeast overgrowth. Often symptoms of autism will start after several courses of antibiotics.
The anti-yeast diet involves eliminating foods that contain yeast (ex. breads, pastries, crackers, pizza dough, etc), and avoiding foods that stimulate yeast growth (ex. sugar, fruit juices, dried fruit, vinegar/foods that contain vinegar), and foods that contain mold or fungus (ex. cheese, mushrooms, fermented foods (sauerkraut, tempeh, black or green tea)).
4. Anti-Hypoglycemia Diet
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) causes symptoms of poor cognitive function/confusion, lethargy, spaciness, irritability, tantrum, physical weakness, and poor articulation. The most important factor for this diet is to avoid sugary/sweet food and high starch foods/simple carbohydrates (potatos, corn, white flour, white pasta, white bread). Children will crave these foods because it gives them a hit of sugar which will soothe the symptoms of hypoglycemia, so withdrawal from these foods can make them feel worse before they feel better.
A general rule of thumb for the anti-hypoglycemia diet is to avoid any foods that are white (ex. sugar, potatoes, pasta, bread, pastries, white rice). Grains can be eaten in a maximum of 2-3 servings per day, and should be limited to whole grains (ex. brown rice) rather than processed grains (ex. white rice). Grains and other carbohydrates should be eaten with protein to slow the absorption of sugars into the blood stream. Safe foods include vegetables, fruits in moderation (avoid tropical fruits as they contain higher amounts of sugar), beans, whole grains in moderation, and protein (eggs, fish, meat). Eating small, frequent meals also helps to maintain balanced blood sugar throughout the day.
5. Specific Carbohydrate Diet
This diet involves eliminating specific carbohydrates from the child’s diet that create symptoms. Generally these carbohydrate foods are those that contain disaccharides, a type of sugar.
6. Low-Oxalate Diet
The low-oxalate diet eliminates foods that contain oxalates, as some people are unable to properly metabolize them. This is a common diet for people with kidney stones, as oxalates bind calcium and form calcium oxalate stones in the kidneys.
Dietary intervention is unique to each child, and should be carefully monitored. Dietary modifications are not the only biomedical treatment for autism, and each child should be properly assessed and put on a comprehensive healing program that also includes supplementation, chelation, and pharmaceutical interventions if necessary.