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Why does a gluten-free diet help autism (Part 2)?

Welcome to part 2 of this 3 part series on the connection between autism and gluten. You can catch up on Part 1 here.

Gluten is inflammatory.

This is a bit of a general statement, which really applies to everyone, but especially for people with autism. It is inflammatory to the whole body, including the gut and the brain. Eating it causes a range of digestive issues, which are very common in people with autism. 

Gluten causes leaky gut.

A study involving 162 children with autism and 44 neuro-typical children showed that a quarter of the children with autism had increased intestinal permeability (also called leaky gut) and only 2% of the neuro-typical children had this condition.  The conclusion of the study is that the immune system of the children with autism has been triggered by gluten (and casein) and has contributed to the intestinal permeability.  Removing the gluten reduces inflammation and allows the gut to start to heal.

Many children with autism have allergies to gluten.

In the study mentioned above, allergy to gluten was also measured, and IgG to gluten was found to be high in children with autism. A smaller study with 36 children with autism and 20 without autism found that the children with autism were more likely to have allergies to common foods.  Doing an elimination diet for 8 weeks led to an improvement in behavioural symptoms.

Many children with autism cannot digest gluten.

This is partly because they have lower levels of the enzyme DPPIV which is needed to breakdown gluten.  This leads to a build-up of peptides (the molecules that make up protein).  Children with autism have a leaky blood-brain barrier, due to an altered expression of genes associated with blood-brain barrier integrity as well as inflammation of the brain. These peptides are small enough to cross the leaky blood-brain barrier and have opioid effects on the brain. That means they fit into the opiate receptor in the brain, and act like morphine!  That means issues such as foggy thinking, inattentiveness and constipation!

Children with autism have a tendency to autoimmunity

Gluten is implicated in autoimmune disease because of molecular mimicry, where the bodies gets confused between the gluten and its own cells, and starts to attack itself when gluten is eaten.

Hopefully I have convinced you that it is at least worth a try to cut out gluten (and maybe even dairy) for a time to see if it improves your child’s quality of life.

Stay tuned for part 3 when I lay out some strategies to help you get started.

What does gluten have to do with mood and behaviour?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, and other grains such as barley, rye and spelt.  Unless you are on a gluten free diet, there is a good chance that your child is eating gluten three or more times per day.  One of the reasons that so many people have a big issue with gluten is because we have overdosed so much on it in the last few generations.

So why does this protein have such a negative impact on mood and behaviour?

Food Allergy

Rates of food allergies have skyrocketed in recent years.  There are a few different types of food allergy.

There are food allergies that can cause a reaction quickly after eating a food.  Possible symptoms of an immediate reaction are hives or anaphylaxis.  These types of reactions are called IgE reactions, and they can be life threatening.  These are the allergies that are tested for with skin prick tests, by doctors or allergists.

Food allergies can also be delayed and symptoms may not be evident for many hours after the child has eaten the problem food.  These are called IgG reactions.

Delayed food allergies can have a range of different symptoms, which are hard to link to eating a particular food, due to the time delay.   They are also hard to identify, as the problem food is often a food that is eaten multiple times every day, so you are never really symptom free.

Symptoms of IgG reactions related to behaviour include:

  • Highly strung, excitable or agitated
  • Inattentive
  • Impulsive
  • Irritable
  • Unable to concentrate
  • Hyperactive
  • Repetitive, loud talking, perhaps with stuttering
  • Short tempered
  • Moody
  • Problems with handwriting

The best way to test for a delayed reaction allergy (IgG reaction) is to do a blood test.

Food sensitivity

Some children will have a sensitivity to gluten, and not be able to break it down properly.  This isn’t a food allergy, as the immune system isn’t involved.

When they can’t break the gluten down properly, the gluten forms a compound called gliadorphin in their brain.  As the name suggests, this compound is closely related to morphine!  And it will act like morphine in your child’s brain.

Clues that this is what is happening in your child are:

  • Problems with speech and hearing
  • Spaciness or brain fog
  • Frequent fatigue
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Difficulty with sleep.

There are a few reasons why your child could have this sensitivity.

It could be that they don’t have enough of the enzyme that breaks down gluten.

Or it could be that they don’t have enough zinc to make the enzyme work well.

If your child does have this issue with gluten, it is likely that they might also have an issue with the protein in dairy (casein).  You might want to remove that from the diet also.

The easiest way to see if gluten is a sensitivity for your child is to strictly remove it for at least a few weeks, and see if symptoms improve.

Leaky gut / leaky brain

Normally your gut wall has very small gaps between the cells, so big particles that shouldn’t get through, can’t get through.  It is quite common for these gaps to get bigger than they should be, which means particles from food can get into the blood stream more easily. The gut won’t be acting as a sufficient barrier.  This is called leaky gut.

Gluten has a role to place in the development of leaky gut.  When someone eats gluten, it causes the body to release a substance called zonulin.  Zonulin causes the cells in the gut to move apart slightly, making the gut leaky.  Zonulin can even have an effect directly on the brain and cause ‘leaky brain’.  This means that particles in our blood stream that should never be able to get near our brains can get in to it!  This causes inflammation in the brain which affect mood, behaviour and is implicated in autism.

Reducing inflammation and healing the gut are important steps to improving your child’s mood and behaviour.  As well as improved behaviour, you can also expect to see improvements in language and skin.  One of the first steps in the journey to healing your gut is removing gluten, as it inflames the gut wall.

Embarking on a major dietary change can be daunting, even when you know its the right thing to do.  To ease the transition, download my free gluten free dairy free recipe book.