Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or autism as it is generally termed, is a group of complex brain disorders in development with various severity levels and conditions. The Centers for Disease Control reported that 1 in 68 children have some form of Autism.1 This is a 10-fold increase over 40 years ago. 

This skyrocketing statistic has fueled a demand for answers and helped to generate funding for research over the last 10 years with notable discoveries revealing the more complex causes of autism. 

Most researchers agree that both genetics and environmental factors play a role in the onset of autism. From the recent research, we are learning how abnormalities in body systems like gut function, immunity, and detoxification may be core causes of behavioral and mood symptoms of ASD.2,3

The most controversial studies surround the effectiveness of a diet free of gluten (a protein found in wheat and other grains) and casein (a protein found in milk).4,5,6,7 The most recently published study in the field of Nutritional Neuroscience showed a strong correlation between gluten, casein and autism. 

Increased intestinal permeability, also know as “leaky gut syndrome,” has been suspected in ASD, and fuels further research stemming from a hypothesis that some ASD symptoms may be caused by the incomplete breakdown of gluten and casein. Both proteins have opioid-like effects crossing the brain barrier and creating numerous implications that continue to be researched.9,10,11

Studies that implemented the gluten and casein free diet (GFCF) provide limited clinical data, yet offer provoking statements from parents: “Parents who reported the presence of GI symptoms, food allergy diagnoses, and suspected food sensitivities in their autistic children saw greater improvement on the gluten and casein free diet in ASD behaviors, physiological symptoms, and social behaviors.”12,13,14 Most will argue that such statements are merely a survey, and not evidence-based research; however, the repeated conclusions of multiple studies are difficult to dismiss. 

With all we now know about today’s wheat and gluten, it may not be too far reaching to consider that gluten is a toxic burden to the body, triggering ASD symptoms. Between the body’s complex systems and the hybridization of wheat over the last 50 years (not to mention the documented 250 plus symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity), there is likely more to be uncovered that connects gluten to autism. 

Many doctors agree that autism isn’t just about behavior management and shouldn’t be limited to brain research. The brain is connected to every body system resulting in a multitude of unique symptoms for each individual diagnosed. The autistic person has a fragile immune system and a poor ability to detoxify. It’s important to realize that the focus should be on managing health at a cellular level, which can be done by adjusting diet and minimizing toxin exposure. 

If you are caring for one with autism, focus on nourishing the body with nutrient dense food and minimizing sugar. A trial of 3-6 months of a gluten and dairy free diet is highly recommended to allow intestinal healing and the opportunity for positive results. 

Tiffany is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and can be reached at (760) 285.1221


1); 2) Jyonouchi H, Geng L, Ruby A, Reddy C, Zimmerman-Bier B. (2005) Evaluation of an association between gastrointestinal symptoms and cytokine production against common dietary proteins in children with autism spectrum disorders. J Pediatr. May;146(5):582-4.; 3) Cade, JR; Privette, RM; Fregly, M; Rowland, N; Sun, Z; Zele, V; Wagemaker, H; Edelstein, C. Autism and Schizophrenia: Intestinal disorders. Journal of Nutritional Neuroscience; 4); 5); 6) Knivsberg AM, Reichelt KL, Nodland M. (2001) Reports on dietary intervention in autistic disorders. Nutritional Neuroscience, 4(1):25-37. 7) Knivsberg AM, Reichelt KL, Hoien T, Nodland M. (2002) A randomised, controlled study of dietary intervention in autistic syndromes. Nutritional Neuroscience, 5(4):251-61; 8); 9) Shattock P, Whiteley P. (2002) Biochemical aspects in autism spectrum disorders: updating the opioid-excess theory and presenting new opportunities for biomedical intervention. Expert Opin Ther Targets. Apr;6(2):175-83; 10) Jinsmaa Y, Yoshikawa M. (1999) Enzymatic release of neocasomorphin and beta-casomorphin from bovine beta-casein. Peptides, 20:957-962.; 11); 12); 13) Knivsberg AM, Reichelt KL, Nodland M. (2001) Reports on dietary intervention in autistic disorders. Nutritional Neuroscience, 4(1):25-37; 14)Whiteley P, Haracopos D, Knivsberg AM, Reichelt KL, Parlar S, Jacobsen J et al. The ScanBrit randomised, controlled, single-blind study of a gluten- and casein-free dietary intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders. Nutr Neurosci 2010; 13(2): 87-100.

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