Autism, The Leaky Gut and The Gluten Free, Casein Free Diet

Milk, cheeses, grainsAutism is a developmental disorder that is characterized by impaired development in communication, social interaction, and behavior. Symptoms usually start before the age of three and can cause delays or problems in many different skills that develop from infancy to adulthood. Symptoms can vary in individuals. One may have mild symptoms, while another may have very serious symptoms.

Causes of autism are not yet known. Some theoretical causes appear to include genetics, leaky gut syndrome, food sensitivities, vaccination, and exposure to environmental toxins.

To reduce a child’s symptoms of autism, parents often try alternative treatments such as nutritional supplements and specialized diets in hopes of seeing improvement of these symptoms. The thinking behind this approach is that it seems that individuals that are diagnosed with autism are more predisposed to food allergies and sensitivities. Their bodies develop a heightened immune reaction to a food that would normally be perceived as harmless. It seems that the most common foods that autistic children develop allergies or sensitivities to are those that contain large protein molecules such as gluten (i.e wheat, barley, rye, malt) and casein (i.e. milk, cheese, yogurts, whey). It is thought that these allergies and sensitivities actually occur because of damage to the permeability of the gut/intestinal wall in autistic individuals. Due to various causes (such as intestinal yeast overgrowth, over-use of antibiotics, deficiency in digestive enzymes, overuse of NSAIDS and antacids, high sugar and refined flour consumption, and stress), the intestinal wall becomes unable to keep out these large proteins from escaping into the bloodstream. These substances actually “leak” across the intestinal wall – hence the name “Leaky Gut Syndrome” (there is much research being conducted right now on the correlations between Autism and the leaky gut). Once this process occurs, the body perceives these large molecules as foreign invaders and attacks them with an antigen-antibody response. These proteins are no longer identifiable as food and the body attacks them as though they were pathogens. As the cycle continues and perpetuates, this “leaky gut syndrome” begins to contribute to poor digestion, mal-absorption problems, and further food allergies.

In an attempt to heal the guts of these children, many parents try the gluten-free/casein-free diet (also known as the GFCF diet). The GFCF diet is one of the more common of the alternative diets for children with autism. Because of this intestinal damage, the theory is that they process peptides and proteins in foods containing gluten and casein differently than other people do. Hypothetically, this difference in processing may increase autistic symptoms. It is believed that the because of the leaks in the intestinal wall, these proteins pass into the bloodstream and then can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and can become a false opiate-like chemical for the brain. This can have a negative and toxic impact on brain development and cause the children to behave in certain ways. Adhering to a gluten free/casein free diet (GFCF diet), in conjunction with nutritional supplements and even anti-fungal medications (to eliminate the yeast that may have caused the leaky gut in the first place), can allow the intestinal wall time to heal. The hope for parents is that this healing will allow for reduction in symptoms and also help to begin to provide much needed nutrients to the body again. Through the process of healing the leaky gut, re-establishing healthy gut bacteria (through probiotics), and taking care of nutritional inadequacies the goal is to see improvements in their children’s health and their symptoms.