Gluten and autism

What does gluten have to do with autism? Good question.  It may seem anecdotal on the surface, you may ask how can pasta or bread actually affect my child’s behavior? Not to say that all children with autism are sensitive to gluten, but more to note that they may have a higher predisposition to food sensitivities.  There is evidence that shows a link between gluten and a whole host of symptoms. 

Gluten is a protein found in grass grains like wheat, barley, rye, faro, spelt, kamut, semolina, and bulgur.  These proteins can produce immune response IgG antibodies in sensitive individuals.  Research has shown that children with autism showed significantly higher levels of the IgG gluten antibody as compared to their siblings and unrelated healthy controls.

There is a strong correlation between gastrointestinal disturbances and the severity of autism. As well people with autism tend to show higher levels of undigested peptides (gluten proteins) in their urine.  The question is how are these undigested proteins showing up in the urine? Due to an inflammation response to the offending food item, full digestion is impeded and the gluten proteins are not fully broken down.  Incomplete breakdown of gluten peptides may react with opioid receptors (which can influence pain perception and behavior) in the brain and cause a dramatic increase in autism symptoms.

There is a cascade effect when looking at a child with untreated or undiagnosed gluten sensitivity;

  1. Gluten proteins stimulate an allergic response, which results in inflammation of the gut causing pain, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea.
  2. The gut becomes damaged and is no longer able to absorb crucial nutrients from the foods, this is called leaky gut syndrome.
  3. Malnutrition is the result of impaired nutrient absorption due to leaky gut.
  4. Energy level and brain function declines, in addition to the reduced production of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This is where behavioral and mental health symptoms can be observed.

As a parent and nutritionist, I know first hand how small changes can have big results!  Given many children can be picky or have intense food preferences. I recommend to start by substituting their favorite foods slowly to ensure compliance.  Check out some of my recipe ideas.