Food Allergies: Do They Cause or Worsen Autism?
Defeat Autism Now / Katie Berry is my new hero. She’s a funny, crafty, talented military mom who happened to be the parent of an autistic child.
After attending a recent “Autism and ADHD” lecture by Thauna Abrin, ND, at Baby Awareness, an eco-friendly family store and resource center, she shared some of her experiences.
The gist of Abrin’s lecture was as follows: Modern-day, Western diets–diets devoid of B vitamins, trace minerals and the essential fatty acids found in leafy greens, whole grains and nuts/seeds–have effectively incapacitated the gut and shut down the liver. This dysfunctional “leaky gut” leaves our body starving for the nutrients it needs to properly function. The liver, meanwhile, can’t properly process environmental toxins, so our body turns into a cesspool of sorts, she adds.
Thus, mindless eating has led some to mistake food sensitivities and gastrointestinal disorders for behavioral problems that are often treated with heavy doses of medicines ranging from stimulants to anti-depressants.
After Abrin’s lecture, Berry recounted nights of terror as her then-2-year-old son experienced a “meltdown,” with unexplained crying spells and vomiting. Her days were filled with anxiety over her son’s high-pitched screams and tantrums. Her life was spiraling out of control.
After months of denial about the seriousness of the problem, Berry began pounding the pathways of various military medical offices, desperately seeking help for her son. She fired doctors, walked out of day-care centers and refused the recommended medication-based treatments.
“It was just me, my husband and celebrity mom Jenny McCarthy,” Berry laughed.
In addition to the standard occupational, speech and behavioral therapy, Berry decided that her family needed a total diet overhaul and she began practicing the wholistic DAN (Defeat Autism Now) treatment made nationally famous by McCarthy.
Mixing the Feingold and GFCF (gluten-free, casein free) diets, Berry’s family also stopped eating processed foods and artificial food additives. “It was hard…but within two weeks, the crying stopped. He started to sleep, and I felt sane for the first time.”
DAN, or the biomedical approach to autism, examines “how [gastrointestinal] disorders, detoxification and other metabolic issues, and nutrition, impact a child’s sense of self, behavior, attention, speech and general health and wellbeing,” according to Abrin.
The strategy primarily involves testing for toxins and food sensitivities, taking supplements and making dietary changes.
Mainstream treatments for autism focus on behavioral, occupational and speech therapies, but some say diet is overlooked.
“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that a gluten-free, dairy-free diet is helpful, but there is not, to my knowledge, any scientific evidence to back up the personal stories,” cautions Kristine Cuthrell, MS, a registered dietician and former president of the local Hawaii Dietician’s Association.
Indeed, many MDs tend to disregard the biomedical approach because DAN therapies lack the evidence-based studies that use double-blind, placebo-controlled experiments to soundly demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of specific products or treatments.
For Abrin, its not worth the wait. “If we waited for these studies to come out for every therapy we use, we’d be missing the opportunity to help kids who could significantly benefit,” she points out.
While the biomedical approach to autism is marginalized by anecdotal stories like Berry’s, one must ask: Why are we so attached to our industrial diets that we are willfully ignoring their possible tragic behavioral side effects?
Although most parents of autistic children are not autism experts, the growing number of stories similar to Berry’s and Abrin’s resonate with many people.
We are surrounded by food– cheap, seemingly healthy, low-fat, no-carb food–and yet we don’t know what healthy foods to eat. Despite the proliferation of scientifically backed, American Heart Association-supported, FDA-approved products and diets, every year we’re getting fatter and sicker–with heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol levels.
“People don’t see the gut/brain connection,” muses Berry. “They might acknowledge having a sugar rush, or being drunk from the beer in their belly, but if you suggest that processed food contributes to autism symptoms, suddenly there is no relation.”
Practicing the Feingold or GFCF diets is no walk in the park. Parties and school lunches suddenly become battlegrounds. On top of it being difficult to prepare these foods on a daily basis, the tests and treatments are expensive (many lack any insurance coverage), and they take time to show results.
“People are looking for a quick fix, a magic pill,” explains Abrin. “A biomedical breakthrough generally takes around a year and a half. That can cost close to $10,000.”
For Berry, the money, time and effort were worth it.
“I just needed hope…and the stories of moms who had success through diet gave me that hope.”
Today, Berry’s son is a quirky, happy, healthy 7 year old. Their story, like so many others in the autism community, powerfully demonstrates the important role that our diets play in maintaining overall health and well being, as well as the need for all of us to think about what we are putting into our own mouths and the mouths of our kids.
“It’s OK to report on personal experience but very important to state that the scientific research has not yet been done to support the claims,” says Cuthrell. “Checking sources like Medline or PubMed for studies, or looking at Tufts Nutrition Newsletter or CSPI’s Nutrition Action Newsletter are good for solid nutrition information.”