Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by impaired social interaction, difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and/or behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control (2020), at the time of this article’s publication 1 in 54 children in the United States is impacted by Autism. This is a ten percent increase in prevalence from statistics reported in 2018, and piggybacks on a steady rise of diagnoses since 2004. ASD occurs across racial and ethnic backgrounds. While there is a strong genetic component to ASD, genetics does not account for 100% of the expression of the diagnosis. This is something that should make us as a society question what stressors in our environment are altering our epigenetics. What if the food we eat has the capacity to either increase or decrease one’s risk for developing ASD, or for altering the severity of symptoms?
While there is no “cure” for ASD, much can be done to support development and maximize independence across the lifespan. Early identification and intervention is key. Research demonstrates that the most effective treatment for Autism is Applied Behavior Analysis. Speech and occupational therapy are also often of great benefit. Pharmaceutical drugs may often be prescribed to help with attention and behavior management. But did you know that Nutritional Therapy can also be incredibly beneficial for individuals with ASD? Think of a world where the current model of care is turned on its head… where people are motivated to use nourishing foods as their primary tool for optimizing physical and mental health, rather than the consumption of pharmaceutical drugs to cover up symptoms!
Children with Autism are eight times more likely to suffer from one or more gastrointestinal disturbances (Campbell-McBride, 2004), and are more likely to be overweight or obese than the general population (Autism Speaks, 2020). They are also likely to experience co-morbid anxiety, depression, ADHD, Schizophrenia, and epilepsy. Research on dietary modification as beneficial “alternative” intervention for Autism exists (Adams, et. al, 2018), but is more limited. However, there is a significant body of literature outlining a clear relationship between the integrity of the gut microbiome and brain health, as well as the physical and mental health challenges that can result from disturbances in the gut.
Increasing attention has been paid to diet and nutrition as it pertains to enhancing treatment progress for individuals on the Autism spectrum. I could spend a great deal of time explaining the nitty gritty of this research and the specific details of nutrients and their impact on the brain and body. But for now I just want to provide you with some important takeaways. Specifically, what are the most common food offenders, and which foods provide the most benefit and nourishment for an individual on the spectrum.
Four common Food Foes:
Gluten and Casein
- Gluten and casein are two of the biggest offenders of leaky gut syndrome. Gluten and casein are proteins found in certain grains (wheat, barley, rye, and some oats) and dairy, respectively. Many individuals on the Autism spectrum who experience gastrointestinal disturbances, or who have unknown sensitivities/allergies to these proteins, likely have difficulty digesting these foods. Over time, these undigested proteins wreak havoc by wearing down the lining of the small intestine, allowing food particles to pass through into the bloodstream and overwhelm the immune system (Nutritional Therapy Association, 2019). Furthermore, Gluten and Casein contain peptides that have an opioid-like effect on the body, and when leaked into the central nervous system, pose a threat to neurological function (Campbell-McBride, 2004).
- There is significant overlap between Autism and ADD/ADHD, so for children who demonstrate hyperactive behavior, or fluctuations in mood and energy, balancing blood sugar is imperative. Given that massive amounts of processed sugar and the lack of nutritional balance found in the standard American diet, blood sugar can easily swing out of control leaving kids to experience highs and lows. Over time, this roller coaster can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, systemic inflammation, and a host of other issues. Read labels carefully, and know the variety of names that sugar comes in (e.g., high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, etc).
- The standard American diet is also high in processed fats (i.e., hydrogenated fats, processed seed oils, trans fats, etc). There is a large body of evidence that details the detrimental impact of these toxic processed fats on the human body (e.g., heart disease, obesity, etc). These fats disrupt the essential role that fatty acids play in a normal healthy body (Nutritional Therapy Association, 2019).
Food additives, preservatives, and pesticides
- Artificial food colorings, flavorings, and preservatives have been found to have negative neurobehavioral effects in children and may play a role in hyperactivity, as well as allergies, and asthma. These chemical additives are abundant in cereal, candies, and even in some vitamins that are marketed to children. Many of these chemical, along with pesticides have been shown to disrupt hormone function, tissue damage, and have even been linked to cancer (Nutritional Therapy Association, 2019).
Four nourishing and beneficial Foods Friends:
- When in doubt… add more veggies! Vegetables are an excellent source of dense nutrition. They are full of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. They are also easy to digest for the most part. Vegetables should be consumed across the colors of the rainbow… this is also a great way to pull kids interest in! Leafy greens (kale, spinach, arugula, chard) and cruciferous vegetables (Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, etc) are particularly beneficial for individuals on the Autism spectrum. Onions, garlic, leeks, and asparagus are a great source of prebiotic fiber and help to maintain a healthy gut flora. Focus on 7-10 servings of veggies per day!
- Grass-fed and pastured meat, dairy and eggs are essential for optimal human nutrition. Animal protein is incredibly nutrient dense, and contains all fo the essential amino acids for building and maintaining a healthy body. Great choices of animal protein include grass-fed beef, wild game, pastured poultry, wild fish, and pastured organ meats (especially liver). Eggs are also an excellent source of healthy fat and neuro-protective nutrients. Dairy (if tolerated) should be consumed raw as healthy bacteria, vitamins, and the enzymes important for digestion are maintained when not pasteurized.
- Additionally, home-made bone broths are extremely nourishing and play a significant role in healing the gut and boosting digestion.
- Deficiencies in essential fatty acids are common in individuals on the Autism spectrum. Furthermore, fats (and in particular Omega-3 fats) play a hug role in brain development, brain plasticity, and neurotransmission. They have also been found to improve hyperactivity and stereotypy in ASD (Cheng, et al., 2017). Fats are also crucial for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K). Excellent sources of Omega-3 fats include: wild fish and other seafood (salmon, mackerel, herring, oysters, and sardines), flax seed, walnuts, hemp, and wheat germ. Supplementing with a high quality cod-liver oil can also be very helpful.
- Additional healthy fat options include: olive oil, coconut oil, nuts/seeds, grass-fed butter, ghee, lard, tallow, duck fat, and avocado. Remember to ditch the fake fats!!
- Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, Kim chi, kombucha, yogurt, and kefir are excellent for helping to maintain a healthy gut and immure system. The live probiotic cultures help to populate the digestive tract with healthy bacteria. This is especially important for those individuals who are working to heal leaky gut in addition to the removal of the inflammatory foods previously mentioned.
For more information on how nutrition can be used to support individuals on the Autism spectrum, or anyone facing physical and/or mental health challenges for that matter, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a FREE 20- minute Discovery Call to find out if Nutritional Therapy is right for you. I look forward to working with you!
Dr. Caroline Huarte
Adams, J. B., et al. (2018). Comprehensive Nutritional and Dietary Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Randomized Controlled 12-month trial. Nutrients, 10, 369.
Autism Speaks (2020). Autism Statistics and Facts. Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/autism-statistics
Campbell-McBride, N. (2004). Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, ADD, Dyslexia, ADHD, Depression, and Schizophrenia. Cambridge, UK: Medinform.
Centers for Disease Control (2020). Community Report on Autism: 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/addm-community-report/documents/addm-community-report-2020-h.pdf
Cheng, Y., et al., (2017) Supplementation of Omega-3 fatty acids may improve hyperactivity, lethargy, and stereotypy in children with autism spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Neuropsychiatric Disease Treatment, 13, 2531-2543.
Matthews, J. (2008). Nourishing Hope for Autism: Nutrition and Diet Guide for Healing Our Children.
Nutritional Therapy Association (2019). Digestion and Elimination Student Guide. Olympia, WA: Nutritional Therapy Association.
Nutritional Therapy Association (2019). Environmental Factors Student Guide. Olympia, WA: Nutritional Therapy Association.
Nutritional Therapy Association (2019). Fatty Acids Student Guide. Olympia, WA: Nutritional Therapy Association.