Autism and The Rise of Gluten Sensitivity
Hello and welcome back to The Well Mind, the series bringing you the latest developments in mental health.
This week: gluten – and if you’re confused as to why I’m discussing it HERE and not inside a food or diet blog, I wouldn’t blame you. The connection between gluten and certain mental health conditions is complex and still under investigation – still, enough ties have been made between the two that people really ought to get the facts.
Gluten-free seems to be all the rage these days. Most grocery stores have a section devoted to gluten-free staples. Most restaurants now have a least a handful of specifically gluten-free items on their menus and some will make absolutely ANY dish sans gluten. Pretty much anyone you talk to knows someone on a gluten-free diet.
....so what gives?
Some experts suggest it’s all a fad, but personally, I’m not buying it. A gluten-free diet has nothing to do with weight loss goals and it seems unlikely that someone would undertake such a difficult and expensive diet just to “look cool”.
So where did this surge in sensitivity come from? Why is it such a problem today? In her in-depth scientific review “Gluten Sensitivity: Different from Celiac Disease?: Are Gluten Sensitivity Rates Rising?”, Amy Brown puts a few possible answers forward – the genetic modification of wheat being at the forefront.
As she points out, the wheat of today is the result of 100 years of selective breeding for higher yield, disease-resistance and improved bread-making traits – one major component of which is gluten strength. The higher the gluten strength of wheat is, the easier it is to form, the more loaves it is able to make and, all-in-all, the cheaper it is to use in the production of bread.
Why should that matter though?
It's sort of a complicated chain of events, but I'll do my best to explain.
It’s suggested that the gluten, which is naturally inflammatory, irritates the intestinal tract, and with the increased strength of the gluten, bread has become more irritating to our digestive system. Over time, frequent intestinal irritation can lead to what is known as “leaky bowel syndrome.”
Leaky bowel syndrome allows molecules of food to escape and the more often a food is eaten, the more chances it’s molecules have to be recognized by the immune system before being flushed from the body. (Which makes sense when you consider the food sensitivities that are most common – milk, eggs..wheat)
Once recognized, the immune system may see the foreign object as a viral or bacterial invader and spark into defensive action against it. Once a molecule is determined to be an invader to be fought, it all spirals downward from there. (I go into more depth on this subject in my blog "Reverse Food Intolerance with Diet and Supplements") Defensive action becomes stronger with each "battle."This explains why though people are generally born with a food allergy, food sensitivities often develop in adulthood and grow worse over time.
Where does autism figure into this all?
While it was known for some time that autistic children had a higher incidence of autoimmune disorders, it was more recently found that specifically, babies born to mothers with Celiac Disease (a condition where the person cannot tolerate gluten) were at higher risk for autism.
This is particularly interesting as both the incidence of Celiac and Autism is on the rise. Also of interest is how the effects of Celiac resemble the effects of Autism, specifically both conditions’ tendency toward:
Folic Acid/ Folate Deficiency and Related Symptoms Including:
Fatigue, Weakness, Irritability, Forgetfulness, Trouble Concentrating, Weight loss, Pale Skin, Nausea, Behavioral Disorders
“In the process of registering my son for kindergarten, I met with the school principal and special needs coordinator…. they actually provided me with more information about the autistic profile, information that not any one of my son’s doctors or therapists had ever relayed. Specifically, they asked about fatigue. Completely unaware that this was part of the ASD profile, I was very surprised they could have guessed at an additional symptom. I confirmed it, and we were able to address how this might be an issue in school.”- Baden, blogger for GAPS Guide.com
B-12 Deficiency and Related Symptoms Including:
Fatigue, Weakness, Depression, Pale Skin, Digestive Problems, Nausea and Weight loss, Depression, Balance Problems, Memory Problems, Dementia or a loss of mental abilities, Nerve Cell Damage, Reduced Touch Sensitivity, Diminished Reflexes
“Hi, I am new here and I am wondering if anyone knows why our Aut kids have pale skin/pale faces.” – RedSun on Healthboards.com
“…before my son began the glueten free and caisen free diet several years ago he was bone skinny and very pale- immediately following the begining of the diet he grew so fast- it was amazing people hardly recogized him.” – Memehegan on Healthboards.com
“People with autism have some facial similarities sometimes, especially in children. For example, high forehead, Low facial muscle tone, pale skin, ear slopping and wide eyes.” – Autism World
Vitamin K Deficiency and Related Symptoms Including:
Increased bruising, Slower Wound Healing, Nausea
“Tyler bruises a lot…. He doesn't have a lot of fat on him as he's tall and active and a picky eater, but he looks good. Do your children bruise there a lot??... He never complains of it hurting thankfully… He's pretty fair skinned too so that doesn't help. And when he skins his knees it's usually pretty bad. He has scars from skinning his knees.” - *~*nightstar*~* at community.babycenter.com
Iron Deficiency and Related Symptoms Including:
Fatigue, Weakness, Pale Skin, Irritability, Pica, Impaired Immunity, Delayed Speech and Motor Developments, Short Attention Span, Headaches, Dizzy Spells, Shortness of Breath, Cold Hands and Feet
“My son has been eating things like dirt, leaves, chalk, crayons, paint, pencils...the list goes on... Well Apparently he was trying to eat carpet fibers at school. This kids wants to eat all the time and has limited varieties of food he'll actually eat. He does eat bread, muffins, cereal, crackers, and only about three varietites of fruits, and a few other types of food, no veggies, though…. He always looks tired, but never stops moving. His skin is super pale and under his eyes are always dark- for years. They say it could be allergies for his eyes, and that maybe he's just fair skinned.” – pumpkinmamma at community.babycenter.com
While Celiac and Autism are clearly two unique conditions which can happen independently of each other, their connection seems clear to me and to many of the parents in the autistic community. Despite the dismissal of the idea by some professionals, many have decided to pursue a gluten free diet and have claimed great success with it. Though some studies have been pushed forward to investigate the link and came up empty, many question the validity of their findings when considering their short duration. (Most symptoms of food sensitivity develop over the long term, not after a single exposure.)
This doubt is supported by a 2012 study released by Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Biobehavioral Health. In a 2 year gluten-free diet study (see the PDF here) they compare two groups: ASD children with Celiac symptoms and ASD children without Celiac symptoms (as reported by their parents).
- Complete elimination is better than partial.
- Those that suspected gluten sensitivity seemed to be right and their children improved and their gluten-related symptoms improved.
- In those children whose parents did not suspect a gluten problem, there was not much change. Makes sense, but more studies like this one will be required.
In concluding my research, I have feel as though I have as many new questions as I have answers gained.
To start – why are the concerns of parents who observe their children every day and who notice what seems pretty clearly to be allergy symptoms, being dismissed so hastily? In addition - why hasn’t more attention been brought to the issues of wheat’s genetic modifications and specifically the effects of higher gluten on our health?
What do you think?