Ditching Dairy & Gluten Found Effective for Autism

A new study in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience found a diet without gluten and casein could improve behavior and physiological symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The Penn State researchers asked 387 parents and caregivers of kids with ASD to fill out an online survey about GI symptoms, food allergy diagnoses, food sensitivities, and how well the kids adhered to their gluten-free, casein-free diet.

If you’re not aware, much debate exists within the ASD community about how effective – and realistic – a gluten-free, casein-free diet can be for ASD. The Autism Research Institute, for instance, recommends completely ditching casein and gluten to treat autism.

Studies, however, show mixed results. The most recent systematic review, which appears in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, argues “limited and weak” evidence that casein and gluten exacerbate problems with ALD, despite that seven of the 14 studies they reviewed concluded eliminating gluten and casein could be incredibly beneficial.

So what’s the big deal about casein and gluten anyway?

Casein is the primary protein in cow’s milk and cheese. Casein breaks downs to casomorphin, an opioid that has a morphine-like effect in your brain. A study in the journal Autism found that casomorphin exacerbates some symptoms of autism. Gluten, the protein in wheat and certain other grains, triggers similar morphine-like effects.

But according to study researcher Laura Cousino Klein, autism may not just be a neurological disease. It may also involve the GI tract and the immune system.

“There are strong connections between the immune system and the brain, which are mediated through multiple physiological symptoms,” Klein said. “A majority of the pain receptors in the body are located in the gut, so by adhering to a gluten-free, casein-free diet, you’re reducing inflammation and discomfort that may alter brain processing, making the body more receptive to ASD therapies.”

The study found when kids went entirely gluten- and casein-free, things dramatically improved. These kids weren’t suffering as many GI problems, for instance, and exhibited better social behavior and attention span.

But here’s the deal. Parents who completely removed casein and gluten from their kids’ diets got the best results, as opposed to parents who only eliminated one or the other, or parents who didn’t completely remove them.

In other words, you can’t halfway ditch these foods and call it a day. You’ve got to remove every last morsel of Kraft singles and wheat crackers from your kids’ diet.

If you’ve got a child with ASD, it’s definitely worth removing all casein- and gluten-containing foods to see if things improve. But you’ve got to give it time (at least six months) and do it right. There are no shortcuts, and you can’t let an occasional glass of milk or wheat bread slip in and get optimal results.

And heads up: gluten can slip in the strangest places. Sandwich meats often contain gluten, as do mustard and pickles. Same deal with casein. You’ve got to read labels and monitor everything your kid eats.

You can see what a challenge this can become, since so many school lunchroom options, for instance, contain gluten and dairy. The point is, you can do it, and the results often prove worth the effort.

I also don’t think it’s a bad idea to remove gluten and casein from any child’s diet, particularly if they have trouble concentrating or gut-related problems.

You might be asking at this point, Then what the heck do I feed my child?

I’ve seen lots of kids go Paleo with amazing results. Lean protein, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds… There are unlimited varieties of satisfying gluten- and dairy-free foods your child will learn to love.

I’ll get the ball rolling with these five delicious, kid-friendly Paleo snacks:

  • Organic apples with almond butter
  • Sliced turkey and avocado in a corn or rice wrap
  • Deviled eggs with gluten-free mustard
  • Trail mix with mixed nuts and berries
  • Coconut milk yogurt with frozen grapes and cherries