As a Naturopathic Physician, I get many questions about diet and detox. The most common question I get is around diet with autistic children and adults. Diet plays a major role in autism treatment. Why does this diet work with this child with autism but not this other one? The answer to this question applies to more than just autism. People are often confused about why a new diet may stop working after some time. When they first start it, they feel good but after some time, they notice that nothing changes. Or they tried it one time and it helped, but another time the same diet change didn’t help. What’s going on? In this post, I want to explore these questions and discuss the factors that may contribute to this.
Diet and Autism
I started working with people diagnosed with Autism a few years into my practice. Autism is either a series of conditions or one condition with different causes. It presents in many ways based on the person. I started using LENS neurofeedback in my practice in 2009. I had one child with Autism respond immediately to the treatment. After that, I had many children and adults with Autism come to see me. I ask all new patients about diet. With Autistic children, the parents had tried many different diets. Gluten-free, casein-free, specific-carbohydrate diet, phenol-free, and others were all tried by different people. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. The Autism Research Institute has a chart that shows the efficacy of different diets. What was interesting to me was that some of the diets helped some of the people some of the time. There wasn’t any one diet that worked with everyone. And some people found specific improvements with one diet but not another. Some patients, for example, found that sensitivity to noises improved with gluten-free diets. But they saw no change in sensitivity to touch with the same diet. It was curious.
SIDE NOTE: If you look at the chart carefully, there is a column that shows the ratio of better:worse. The ratio on average is much higher for alternative treatments than for pharmacological treatments. The only pharmacological treatment that shows promise at this time is the IVIG therapy. It is a therapy used to boost the immune system. The chart doesn’t evaluate neurofeedback.
Dr. Kenneth Aiken, a nutritionist in the UK, has a theory that makes sense. His book, “Dietary Interventions in Autism Spectrum Disorders,” gives an excellent overview of the subject. Dr. Aiken explores the different diets and comes up with a few recommendations. It’s a good book about diets in general but he highlights that maybe autism is a series of disorders and not just one. This would explain why some people do better avoiding gluten but not something else. Dr. Aiken comes up with a more holistic dietary approach that is relatively easy for most families. He addresses the challenge that many autistic children don’t eat enough. (If you read the book and are still confused, feel free to make an appointment with me to discuss. I have many different approaches to the treatment of autism. )
What his book doesn’t cover in detail is epigenetics. I have created a podcast about this, but want to explain more here. Epigenetics is the science of how the environment affects our DNA expression. What we eat, drink, breathe, and experience changes how our cells turn processes on and off. There is a relatively new field called nutrigenomics that explores how what we eat can change our DNA function. Research suggests that diet has a big impact on the function of DNA. In mouse studies, researchers observe physical changes in mice with unhealthy diets. Traits like diabetes are then passed to successive generations. This transmission occurs even if the mother changes her diet back to the healthy diet. An intervention like supplementation can restore function. (this part is confusing) It’s amazing.
What does this have to do with Autism? Autism is most likely not a genetic disease but an epigenetic one. Dietary changes can reduce symptoms, but in most cases doesn’t cause a complete reversal. In general, I find that supplementation and dietary changes together are more effective. This could be why my patients of complain that a simple diet shift stops helping. They need more than just a shift in diet.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t change your diet if it’s not healthy! But we shouldn’t expect that by itself to always fix the problem. Other factors may be part of this situation and I will cover those issues in another blog post. For now, remember that diet is part of the solution for autism treatment and other issues. But there are other aspects that are important in total health. If you want to learn more, feel free to schedule an appointment with me.