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Gluten-free, Casein-free Diet for Autism Spectrum Disorders & ADD

AMY GARDNER / May 30, 2014

The Gluten-free/Casein-free diet is a relatively new, popular dietary intervention used to treat symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  It involves of completely eliminating gluten and casein products from the diet.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, some vinegars and many processed foods. Casein is one of the proteins found in dairy products.

Researchers hypothesize that children with autism are not able to completely break down foods containing the proteins gluten and casein resulting in opioid peptides (larger molecules than usual) being absorbed through the gut.  These opioid peptides may have an morphine-like effect on the brain, further exacerbating autism symptoms such as visual stimulation, difficulty with emotion regulation, poor eye contact and sensory processing disorder. The “leaky gut syndrome,” often present in children with autism (possibly related to earlier insults due to use of antibiotics, food sensitivities, etc), allows peptides to cross intestinal membrane, enter the bloodstream, cross the blood/brain barrier, and then affect neurotransmitter function.

This theory would explain why a good number of children with ASD have GI symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and gastroesophageal reflux.  Another suggestion is that since these children often have difficulty expressing or pinpointing their pain, they can react with aggressive or emotionally expressive behavior.

Research is still mixed on this diet therapy.  Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence is abundant; just talk to any parent with a child on the spectrum or with ADD who has tried this diet therapy and you will hear amazing feedback.  Recently, a psychotherapist told me her friend was ready to put her son with ADD in private school until they tried removing gluten from his diet and saw an amazing transformation.

The GFCF diet has been the most frequently researched diet approach to ASD disorders in recent years. Some research demonstrates the diet’s effectiveness, however, implementation of the diet is dependent on parental and physician support as well as socioeconomic status. This is a difficult diet to implement and maintain, particularly in older children who may have resistance to new foods.  It’s also particularly challenging in this population where picky eating and feeding disorders are common.  It’s also important to note that nutrient deficiencies and poor bone growth can result if appropriate substitutions to the wheat and dairy components aren’t included.  Often supplements are required.  Make sure to consult a physician or dietitian prior to making any changes to your child’s diet.