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Gluten-Free Diet for Autism

A gluten-free diet can be extremely helpful for some children on the autism spectrum, though it’s important to evaluate for gluten sensitivity to ensure the best results

Gluten is the protein in many grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It is common in the ASD community to try a Gluten-Free (GF) Diet. While many believe this is just a fad, there actually is clinical backing to the efficacy of this diet. While a gluten-free diet can be extremely helpful for some children on the autism spectrum, it’s important to evaluate for true gluten sensitivity to ensure the best results. One study suggests that a gluten-free diet may be appropriate for a certain subset of children on the spectrum [1].

In individuals with ASD, the small intestine is often compromised, meaning that it is missing many “good bacteria” which are replaced with “bad bacteria”. These bad bacteria can injure the GI system and even create small perforations commonly referred to as “Leaky Gut Syndrome”. When gluten is digested and metabolized in an individual with ASD, they are frequently not metabolized completely. Some of these metabolites form opiate-like substances, which can travel through the perforated gut and travel to the brain causing severe brain fog, autistic behaviors, increased pain tolerance, mood swings and yes, even addiction. 

Alternatively, food sensitivities and intolerances can be more common in individuals with ASD. One of the top 8 food allergens is wheat. If an individual has an undiagnosed food intolerance, this may cause bloating, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea and/or constipation, headaches, dark circles under the eyes, altered concentration, fatigue, and trouble sleeping, which can all attribute to poor behavior. 

To get gluten fully out of the system and to begin seeing improvements, please allow a 4-6 week trial period, although trials of 3+ months often see the most improvement. Please speak to a Registered Dietitian before starting your child on a GF diet.

Just as every child is different, every child with ASD is different. It is important to view each of these children as completely different individuals. What might work for your friend’s child, or even one of your children, may not work for another.


Does Your Child Have Gluten Sensitivity?

To ensure best results from a gluten-free diet, you can test your child for gluten sensitivity. There are a few different ways to do this, either through a stool or blood panel.

COMPREHENSIVE STOOL PANEL

The panel I use for my comprehensive stool analyses is called GI-MAP. This panel not only tests for overgrown bacteria and yeast, but also digestive function and gluten sensitivity. This is the least invasive way to show gluten sensitivity, though I would recommend the blood panel to get a larger picture on other food sensitivities, since GI-MAP only tests for gluten. This panel is done through Diagnostic Solutions Labs, though I order it for my clients (even remotely) for a discounted rate. → Find Out More.

FOOD SENSITIVITY PANEL

You can test for sensitivity to 170 different foods by using the Mediator Release Test (MRT). This panel not only tests IgG but also tests IgA and T-Cell reaction. This is a blood panel by Oxford Biomedical Labs, though I can order it for my clients (even remotely) for a discounted rate. This is a great way to test for several glutinous grains as well as dairy, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, legumes, seafood, meats, and artificial ingredients. → Find Out More.


Foods to Eat & Avoid

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Supplements to Help with the Transition

Transitioning your diet to gluten-free can feel very overwhelming, and you’re bound to have slip ups. There are digestive enzymes specifically made for gluten (and dairy) exposures. You can also find a multivitamin specifically for individuals with gluten sensitivity (that contain these enzymes) to take each morning (this product is not on Amazon yet).



FAQs

What if we have a slip-up?

Whether they got into something at school, you missed an ingredient on a food label, or they snuck food from the pantry, slip-ups happen. There are gluten enzymes (my favorite is Pure Encapsulations) that can help not ruin all of your progress. I can take 4-5 days for just one slip-up of gluten out of the body. I recommend hiding all non-GF foods at home and educating the school on the GF diet. 

Are gluten and casein withdrawals real?

They are 100% real. As addressed on the first page, metabolites of gluten can resemble opiates. Some children have no symptoms of withdrawal while some are quite severe. You may notice very poor behavior, begging for foods with gluten, insomnia, or other withdrawal symptoms. Stay strong and stick to the diet. Withdrawal symptoms usually dissipate after the first week.

Will we still be able to eat out?

Yes! The key to eating out is preparation. Before you go to a restaurant, go online and check their menu for GF options. Many times there will either be a separate gluten-free menu or a “GF” icon will be displayed next to gluten-free entrees. Some restaurants are happy to assist while others will resist. Make a list of restaurants that have GFCF options to make eating out easier and less stressful. 

What if labels that say the food is produced in a facility that also processes wheat?

This is typically fine. As long as the food doesn’t contain the ingredient itself.

How do I read the label to ensure there is no wheat?

We want to focus on the ingredient label of a packaged food. A good initial filter is to check the allergen information (the top 8 allergens have to have a warning by law), which can be found underneath the ingredients. If you do not spot wheat, then read through the ingredients double-checking that there are no ‘hidden’ ingredients (refer to the ‘avoid’ foods on page 2).

 
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References

[1] Buie T. The relationship of autism and gluten. Clin Ther. 2013;35(5):578-83.