To Your Health
October, 2008 (Vol. 02, Issue 10)
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When Food Affects Function

Revealing the hidden connection between food, allergies and autism.

By Diana Fatayerji, MS, PhD

Most parents know that what they feed their children can affect them in many ways, whether it's their mood, energy or physical health. For example, caffeine can increase energy (at least in the short term), while food dyes and additives can cause hyperactivity, skin problems and asthma.

For those with autistic children, there's new evidence that food and nutrition could play a significant role in providing support for some of the symptoms of autism, which include social withdrawal, repetitive behavior, communication difficulties, anxiety and hyperactivity.

Foods That Influence Autistic Behavior

The inability to break down certain components of our food is known to affect brain development and behavior. The foods typically associated with this are gluten; the protein in wheat, oat, spelt, kamut, rye and barley; and casein (the protein in milk products).

While most of us use enzymes to break down these proteins into peptides and then amino acids, individuals who lack these enzymes - in particular, children with autism - cannot completely digest gluten and casein. Research has shown that avoiding foods containing these proteins may significantly improve symptoms associated with autism.

image - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark In autistic children, peptides produced as a result of breaking down gluten and casein are eliminated harmlessly in the urine, where large amounts of these peptides are found. Although most of the peptides exit the body, incomplete digestion can allow some of them to spill into the blood and, subsequently, the brain. Once in the brain, the peptides affect brain development and behavior, making them responsible for some autistic symptoms.

Along with disrupting normal brain activity, these peptides can have opiate-like effects similar to morphine, producing feelings of well-being and relaxation. As a result, autistic children can become "addicted" to gluten and casein. They may find it difficult to stop eating culprit foods such as wheat and dairy.

If the opiate-peptide theory were correct, we would expect to see an improvement in autistic symptoms with removal of the peptides. One way to remove the opiate-like peptides is through elimination of gluten and casein in the diet - an approach that looks promising for autism.