Can the Modification of Diets Improve Symptoms of ASD?

gluten free
From the moment a child is diagnosed with autism, their parents or caregivers are faced with many decisions. They are presented with various options for therapies, with diet modification being one of the most prominent alternative options. However, researchers are still debating the effectiveness of modification. Could reducing or omitting gluten actually improve behaviors in a child with autism?

Diets free of gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley), as well as casein (the protein in dairy), are estimated to be followed by 40% of individuals with autism disorders. Although some clinicians recommend these diets, there is still little scientific evidence that the diets have made long-term improvements.

The reason why this diet is recommended is due to the fact that individuals with autism often have sensitive digestive systems, making it difficult for them to process what they intake. Humans extract nutrition from food through their intestines, where small molecules cross the mucosal lining and enter the bloodstream.  Research has shown that individuals with autism often have a “leaky gut”, where their intestines allow molecules to enter the bloodstream, where they shouldn’t be.

The gluten-free and casein-free (GCFC) diet is passed on the theory that opioid peptides, formed from poor digestion of foods, can enter the bloodstream due to the intestines being more permeable. From there, they cross the blood-brain barrier and can lead to disruptions in brain development. However, extensive research has shown that approximately 30% of individuals with autism experience difficulties with their digestion, causing the debate for the need for these regimes.

Furthermore, a history of studies that found a positive effect of GCGC diets on the behaviors of children with autism had flaws, while the studies that were considered most methodological did not result in any significant benefits. This leads professionals to question if it is ethical or financially sound to recommend a diet to parents who are already dealing with a lot of decisions and tapping out their resources.

The key to better understanding the potential of these diets is to create well-designed treatment trials. This will result in more solid evidence to guide clinical and parental decision-making. With the quality of special education and therapies stronger than ever, it is becoming increasingly critical that alternative therapies are also focused on as a way to aid in the individual’s development and well-being.



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