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Is a gluten-free diet needed in Autism?

This is a contentious question, many people would argue that you must be gluten free if you are autistic. I don't agree.

Cute child wants bread
Kids and bread, it's hard to say no!

Let's start by explaining where the idea of a gluten-free diet being so important in autism comes from. Then I'll discuss my opinion.

Gluten and leaky gut

In a large study in 2015, scientists found that gluten or rather the protein gliadin, increases zonulin. Zonulin is a hormone in the gut which causes leaky gut when there's too much of it. So, the natural assumption is that gluten causes leaky gut. There is one very important detail about this study; it was done in human tissue, in a lab. Whilst that is valid research, and should be discussed, they also only tested the tissue from celiac sufferers and people with known gluten intolerance. Lab testing is not primary science and can only provide theoretical evidence.

Why is leaky gut important in Autism?

Well, the theory is that when we have an inflammation in our gut lining, that inflammation will increase our systemic inflammation and put us at high risk of "neuro-inflammation". This means inflammation of the cells which make up our barrier to the brain (blood brain barrier). It's a barrier we have in place to protect our brains from anything that floats around in the blood, which can be damaging. If this barrier becomes inflamed, then it will also become leaky. Importantly, when the gut is leaky it could allow pathogens to sneak through to the blood stream and these could also potentially cause damage to the leaky brain.

Leaky brains, and neurological disorders

When the brain is exposed to neuro-inflammation, and pathogens, there are theories that this may be a causative factor to autism (and other neurological disorders and diseases such as Alzheimers and Schizophrenia).

My 2 cents

I agree that many of us could probably be healthier if we avoided gluten. But not all of us are gluten intolerant and not all of us have leaky gut.

Personally I can't have gluten, but I don't become less autistic when I have gluten free food. Neither do I become less autistic when my gut is super healthy. (Yes, I am a naturopath, and sometimes even my gut struggles).

I have autistic clients who try going gluten-free and see no difference. Then I have other clients who quit both gluten and dairy, and it's like they've medicated. I believe it's very individual. We can't treat the condition, we must treat the person!

Personalised treatments

The way I work with my clients is to look at each one with brand new eyes. We are all different. Just because we're autistic doesn't mean we fit a protocol. There are different genetics, environments, foods and family relationships that affect our health. No two patients are exactly the same.

Diet, lifestyle and digestion

I provide a personalised plan for your diet, by discussing how you could eat better, or if there is anything desperately missing from you menu. I discuss lifestyle, like being outdoors, using electronics and how we sleep. We definitely talk about digestion, and how that can be improved. But not all my autistic clients have poor gut health!

Nutrients and herbs

In addition, we can also apply some nutritional supplements (and herbs if the tastebuds agree). These can be targeted to reduce inflammation, but I have have found much more success through supporting my clients nervous system, and calming that down. What supporting the nervous system means, I will discuss further next week.


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