This week we’re taking a look at two dietary-based revelations that might shed light on how to better treat autism.
First up, a new study released by Salk Institute scientists puts forth the thesis that symptoms of autism can be reduced in animals that follow a diet similar to that of diabetics seeking to control blood sugar levels. The researchers discovered that when fed diets with a high glycemic index, the brains of mice developed more activated immune cells called microglia, alongside inflammation. These mice in turn exhibited behaviors that could be classified as autistic, such as reduced social interactions and aimless activities.
However, when mice were fed a diet with a low glycemic index, their behavior improved.
The scientists also found evidence of immune system dysfunction in autism spectrum disorder, which appears to be the result of environmental variables. While a growing number of researchers are coming to believe that autism starts during pregnancy and that certain genetic influences can predispose certain people to autism, environmental factors are still to be viewed as contributing to autism.
According to scientist Tiziano Pramparo, “The consequences of the increase in inflammatory signals described in this mouse study converge with brain alterations we have seen in human studies affecting neurogenesis, neuronal maturation, and synaptic functions. Ultimately, these alterations together with behavioral abnormalities appear to be ameliorated by a diet poor in glycemic index.”
The role of a diet’s ability to mitigate the effects of autism was given further credence in a less-official study, this one conducted in the kitchen of mother Susan Levin, whose son Ben was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. What are we going to do?’” says Levin. “Everyone knew autism was a lifelong disorder and couldn’t be cured.”
However, this didn’t hold to be true in Ben’s case, which Levin recently documented in her memoir Unlocked: A Family Emerging From the Shadows of Autism.
While Levin is quick to note that while her journey should not be seen as a “silver bullet” for all families dealing with autism, she does believe that her son’s transformation into a high-functioning adolescent was the result of both her home-based, child-centered social-relational program that she calls the Son-Rise Program and, more importantly, what she put on her son’s plate to eat.
Levin is one of a growing number of parents and advocates who believe that one’s diet—be it organic, gluten- and/or casein-free—is a means to treating the symptoms of autism.
While there is still significant debate amongst experts as to whether diets should be seen as potential cure, studies have established a direct link between gastrointestinal issues and autism, with as many as 70% of children with autism having gastrointestinal issues. .
For Levin, she started her son Ben initially on a gluten- and casein-free diet, but when that diet caused other reactions to emerge, they switched him to the Body Ecology Diet, an anti-yeast diet that is high in grain-like seeds such as quinoa. Seemingly overnight, Ben began to calm down and started making eye contact.
Now at the age of 12, Ben is studying for his bar mitzvah and showing degrees of empathy that Levin thought she would never see again after his initial diagnosis. So while Levin’s case is far from a definitive statement on the effectiveness of diets on the symptoms of autism, it does give parents food for thought when investigating different treatment options.