Gluten-Free Diet Might Help Those With Autism

Autism treatment may be more effective with dietary restrictions

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) There are connections between the brain and the immune system that may be used to help those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). A change in diet, it seems, could make other treatments more effective.

By observing a strict gluten-free and casein-free diet, children with ASD may show improved behavior and lessened physiological symptoms.

As such, researchers believe that autism may be more than a neurological disorder.

"Find out if a change in diet could benefit you or your child."

Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., associate professor of biobehavioral health and human development and family studies at Penn State, and Christine Pennesi, medical student at Penn State College of Medicine, led the study.

"Research has shown that children with ASD commonly have GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms," says Pennesi. "Notably, a greater proportion of our study population reported GI and allergy symptoms than what is seen in the general pediatric population.”

Since those with ASD are more likely to have GI problems, researchers deduced that there may be a link between the two.

"There are strong connections between the immune system and the brain, which are mediated through multiple physiological symptoms," explains Klein. "A majority of the pain receptors in the body are located in the gut, so by adhering to a gluten-free, casein-free diet, you're reducing inflammation and discomfort that may alter brain processing, making the body more receptive to ASD therapies."

387 parents or primary caregivers participated in the study by filling out a 90 question online survey. The survey included questions involving the child’s GI symptoms, food allergies and sensitivities, and adherence to gluten-free and casein-free diets.

Based on the results of the survey, the study found that a gluten-free casein-free diet could improve physiological symptoms and social behaviors of children with ASD who had GI or allergy symptoms.

It is important to note that there is nothing inherently bad about gluten or casein for most people. However, they are two of the most common food allergies.

“Gluten and casein seem to be the most immunoreactive,” adds Klein. “A child's skin and blood tests for gluten and casein allergies can be negative, but the child still can have a localized immune response in the gut that can lead to behavioral and psychological symptoms. When you add that in with autism you can get an exacerbation of effects.”

The results of the study are based heavily on self-reporting, and more research is necessary to determine the effects of dietary change.

"While more rigorous research is needed, our findings suggest that a gluten-free, casein-free diet might be beneficial for some children on the autism spectrum," Pennesi said. "It is also possible that there are other proteins, such as soy, that are problematic for these children."

The study was published online in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience on Feb. 16th, 2012.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 5, 2012
Last Updated:
March 5, 2012