Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet

Last week, Science Daily ran an article regarding research into the benefits of the gluten-free, casein free diet for children with autism. [The article entitled “Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet May Help Some Children With Autism, Research Suggests” may be accessed by clicking here.] According to researchers at Penn State University, children with autism often have gastrointestinal issues and/or allergies, and removing glutens and caseins from their diets seems to improve their physical symptoms as well as their behavior. In this article, one of the researchers, Professor Laura Cousino Klein, suggests that “autism may be more than a neurological disease—it may involve the GI tract and the immune system.” Of course, for years many doctors and parents who have pursued biomedical treatments have asserted that gut issues impact the brain and influence behavior in autism. Some of the benefits found in children who were on strict gluten-free and casein-free diets included improved eye contact, better language production, and increased attention span. Moreover, they found that parents who completely eliminated gluten and casein from their children’s diets found the greatest benefits. Professor Klein emphasizes the importance of vigilance in monitoring the child’s diet, stating, “If parents are going to try a gluten-free, casein-free diet with their children, they really need to stick to in order to receive the possible benefits.”

This research caught my attention because Alex has been on a strict gluten-free and casein-free diet since he was seven years old. At that time, I began reading about benefits of using the GFCF diet in children with autism, and I asked his doctor if we could run a food allergy test. Although I was a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of implementing this restrictive diet, I decided before we ever ran the food allergy test that if he, indeed, showed allergies or sensitivities to certain foods, we would remove them from his diet. I can still remember vividly sitting in the doctor’s waiting room scanning the test results the nurse shared with me before I talked with his doctor.

Disappointed but determined, I realized that we were going to have to eliminate wheat, oats, barley and other glutens as well as all milk products from his diet because he showed sensitivities to all of these foods, plus a few others. Armed with research I’d gathered from the Internet, some food allergy cookbooks, and good advice from other autism moms who had already put their kids on the GFCF diet, we took away the glutens and caseins that were potentially harmful to Alex’s system. Dr. William Shaw’s book Biological Treatments for Autism and PDD helped me to understand that glutens found in grains and caseins found in milk products are proteins that can act as opiates (like morphine) in children who have digestive issues, such as leaky gut, that allow these food products to go to the brain improperly processed. Since Alex often acted “zoned out” when he was little, I suspect this is what happened when he consumed these foods to which he showed sensitivity.

In addition, my research on glutens led me to discover that many people of Irish descent have sensitivity to glutens and do not tolerate wheat well. In fact, many develop celiac disease, which is an inflammation of the intestines that can be controlled by faithfully following a completely gluten-free diet. Since I have Irish ancestors in my Anglo-Saxon heritage, and Ed is nearly pure Irish in his family tree, Alex could have a genetic predisposition to be intolerant of foods with glutens. Although he didn’t seems to have stomach aches when he was little, he often had toddler diarrhea and frequently had projectile vomiting when he was on milk-based formula as an infant. At that time, the pediatrician casually dismissed my concerns of food allergies, but I think he probably was born with those issues.

Fortunately, Alex was quite cooperative about going on the GFCF diet, and his willingness to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood that were allowed on the diet made this transition much easier for all of us. We suspected that the diet made him feel better because if new food were offered to him, he would ask, “Does this have wheat or dairy in it?” Although his most recent food allergy tests from last spring indicate that he no longer shows sensitivity to glutens and caseins because he has refrained from eating them for over a dozen years, we have kept him on the diet. Any time he has accidentally consumed something with glutens or caseins, we saw behavioral issues that made us realize that he needs to stay on the diet. Recently, perhaps in some sort of young adult rebellion or just curiosity, he has sneaked off and eaten some dinner rolls one evening and doughnuts another. Both times, he went through an emotional roller coaster where he went from being very agitated and hyper to angry and aggressive to feeling guilty and sad, sobbing uncontrollably. Needless to say, we concur with the recent Penn State research that Alex has benefitted from being on the gluten-free and casein-free diet. Now if we can just make sure to keep any of the offending foods away from him and make certain that he doesn’t eat them, we won’t have to see how those proteins negatively impact his behavior.

“Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food.” Isaiah 55:2


K. C. said...

That's interesting about the gluten connection to Irish heritage! You find such cool facts out there. :)

Pam Byrne said...

Thanks, K.C.! I am a goldmine of semi-useless information.