Diet has long been associated with healthy living, but it remains a little-known fact that it can also play a significant role in managing autism.
Studies over the years have shown a healthy diet is crucial to the prevention and management of neurological disorders, and autism is no exception. But parents often don’t know where to start. Despite autism affecting one in 100 people in the UK and being a part of daily life for two million eight hundred thousand people in the country, education on how diet can influence autism is limited.
Dr. M. Walid Qoronfleh, Director of Research and Policy Development at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), and Dr. Mohamed Essa, Associate Professor of Nutrition at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, have been working on behalf of WISH—a global initiative of Qatar Foundation—to address this problem. Their new book with Springer-Nature Switzerland AG, Personalized Food Intervention and Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder Management, explains some of the interventions that can potentially make a big difference.
The benefits of a healthy diet
To understand how diet can play a role in managing autism, we first must understand how food is linked to brain development.
Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids found in food are all necessary for the proper development of a child’s brain. Any deficiency in these nutrients can affect the production of nervous system signals and disturb normal visual and cognitive brain functions. In more serious cases, it can even lead to brain damage and subsequent developmental and intellectual problems.
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Studies have shown children with autism are often at high risk of nutritional deficiencies, metabolic imbalances, and gut problems due to their unusual eating patterns. This is additionally exacerbated in children with sensory processing disorders, who may have a limited diet as a result of adverse reactions to certain smells, tastes, and textures.
In fact, analysis of autistic children’s blood and tissue has revealed they have low levels of important nutrients, such as vitamins B3, B6, B12, C, D, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc, as well as essential fatty and amino acids. Carefully managing a child’s diet, to ensure he/she has the required amounts of each of these vitamins, can therefore go a long way in supporting his/her overall development and preventing health deterioration.
The do’s and don’ts
Simple diet modifications can result in measurable improvements in health, stimulate developmental progression, and enhance social interactions for children with autism. Unfortunately, this has been found through trial and error.
We believe the most effective dietary plan should be tailored to the individual in accordance of his/her metabolic profile. Autism is a spectrum; it is therefore critical that we assess the deficiencies and nutritional needs of the individual before building a dietary plan that addresses these problems.
For instance, many children with autism suffer from gastrointestinal dysfunctions, learning disabilities, difficulties sleeping, and social behavioral issues. For these individuals, the elimination of certain food types can be the answer. For example, gluten-free diets, specific carbohydrate diets, yeast-free diets, and the restriction of food allergens have all proven to be beneficial for some subjects.
The use of nutritional supplements to boost fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, and probiotics can also help ensure the correct level of nutrition is being consumed—and therefore, not only limit digestive problems—but also mitigate social and behavioural problems.
These efforts should always go hand in hand with the practice of excluding or managing additives, preservatives, and artificial flavors and colors, and instead encouraging the consumption of basic nutrient categories—such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, and hydration.
When the appropriate nutrients are consumed, large improvements have been observed in several conditions and symptoms for autistic children. Alleviation examples include, but are not limited to, the following:
Loss of appetite
Poor attention and concentration
Increased cognitive functions
Irritability, mood swings, and behavior changes
Anxiety and depression
Autism-related behavior (improved social responsiveness, decreased aggression, fewer tantrums, hyperactivity, etc.)
Language skills, speech, and communication
Enhanced immune system
Personalization of dietary plans
As with most solutions, there’s no “one size fits all”, especially in autism, where there is no one symptom or behavior associated with the disorder. Tried and tested dietary approaches are a good place to start, but children with autism suffer from different severities of the disorder, and —tailored to the individual’s specific symptoms and needs—are the most effective.
Understanding the child’s metabolic profile is extremely helpful. If imbalances in metabolism are revealed, this can inform treatment that is much more precise. Preliminary research suggests, for example, that adding or removing certain foods or supplements may be beneficial for some of these children.
It is important you consult with your family doctor before changing your child’s diet. We always recommend parents work with registered dietitians or nutritionists to figure out which diet type, or advanced supplements, might be most appropriate for their child.
Expectant mothers and reducing the risk of autism
Just as it is important to tailor a child’s diet to help manage autism, expectant mothers should also be aware of their diet to reduce the likelihood of their baby having autism.
The cause of autism is commonly described as a genetic predisposition combined with an environmental influence, meaning there is some suggestion that an unbalanced diet in expectant mothers could affect brain development and therefore, potentially, a child’s susceptibility to autism.
In general, expectant mothers should do what they can to remain healthy during pregnancy. This includes optimizing their nutritional intake, taking prenatal multivitamins as recommended by their physicians, watching weight gain, and reducing unnecessary exposure to chemicals and pollutants.
The next phase of research
More research is needed to support the link between autism symptoms and nutrition. There are many other vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, nutraceuticals, and herbs believed to benefit autistic children. Therefore, evidence-based research is necessary to provide sufficient, credible information.
Encouragingly, there are two research areas receiving a lot of attention from the medical community. The first is research to determine whether a gluten and casein-free (GFCF) diet can improve symptoms of autism. This is significant given it is a popular diet choice amongst caregivers in the autism community.
The second is innovative research into the connection between the gut and brain and the potential influence this has on neurodevelopmental disorders. Autistic children suffer from imbalances in their gut microflora, which raises the question: if we are able to manipulate bacterial population through diet, can autism symptoms such as gastrointestinal disorders be treated this way?
These are both promising steps and will hopefully better inform us of the relationship between a healthy diet and the management of neurological disorders like autism.
This article was featured in Issue 109 –Attaining Good Health.