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Autism and Leaky Gut Syndrome

By Dr. Joey Shulman D.C., RNCP

Autism is classified as a mental disorder that tends to develop mysteriously in toddlers who appear to have a normal infancy. Around the age of 18 months, parents often notice that their child is not reaching various developmental milestones. Sensitivity to touch, failure to make eye contact, frequent temper tantrums and improper speech are all common symptoms associated with autistic disorders. For more information on diagnostic criteria for autism, visit Childhood Illnesses.

Autism affects 5 out of every 10, 000 people in North America. In addition, 15 out of every 10, 000 people are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Autism affects individuals of all races, cultures and socioeconomic groups. More males than females are affected, with the ratio being 4:1.

Causes of autism are not known. Potential causes appear to include genetics, leaky gut syndrome, food sensitivities, vaccination, exposure to environmental toxins and a difficult pregnancy or labor.

What is leaky gut syndrome?
Research regarding autism and leaky gut syndrome is growing with nutritional and natural approaches being more widely used.

Leaky gut syndrome is the name given to the condition that alters the permeability of the gut/intestinal wall. Due to various causes, the intestinal wall is unable to keep out large, undesirable molecules. Thus, substances (i.e. large proteins) that are normally kept outside of the body “leak” across the intestinal wall. The body perceives these large molecules as invaders and attacks them with an antigen-antibody response.

Leaky gut syndrome is rarely tested for in conventional medical practices although there is a vast amount of research linking intestinal permeability to a number of conditions.

Causes of leaky gut syndrome
There are several causes of leaky gut syndrome including:

  • Overgrowth of candida albicans (yeast) in the intestinal flora
  • Over usage of antibiotics
  • Deficiency in digestive enzymes
  • Medications (NSAIDS, antacids, ibuprofen)
  • Caffeine consumption
  • High sugar consumption
  • Over consumption of refined floury products such white breads, pastas, muffins and cookies
  • Stress
  • Poor liver function


Dietary approaches to leaky gut syndrome
Individuals diagnosed with autism are more predisposed to food sensitivities. Food sensitivity is defined as a heightened immune reaction to a food item that in most systems would otherwise be perceived as harmless. The most common food products to which autistic children develop sensitivities are grains (e.g. wheat, rye, oats) and dairy products (e.g. milk, cheese, whey). Other food culprits can include refined sugars, caffeine, chocolate, food coloring and citrus fruits.

Detecting which food may be exacerbating your child’s condition may feel like finding a needle in a haystack. The best approach is to follow an elimination diet by removing specific food items from your child’s diet, one by one over a period of two to four weeks.

For autistic children, I recommend implementing a gluten-free diet at first and keeping dairy to a minimum. If an improvement is not noticed, switching to a diet that is completely dairy free is recommended. Improvements in behavior can be noticed in children anywhere from 24 hours to 4 weeks after making these dietary changes.

For additional symptoms indicating food sensitivities, click here.  Visit the Truestar Nutrition section to design a kid-friendly meal plan for your child.

Stomach acidity in autistic children can also vary from child to child. Many children with behavioral disorders either over secrete or under secrete stomach acid, making digestion and absorption of precious nutrients difficult. To find a licensed naturopath in your area to determine the viability of your child’s stomach acid secretions, visit the Truestar Directory of Naturopathic Doctors.

Top 3 supplements for leaky gut syndrome

A high quality liquid multivitamin: The absorption rate of liquid vitamins is higher. This is important for individuals who have a compromised digestive system.

Acidophilus to ensure bowel flora is healthy: This is critically important for children who have taken antibiotics frequently. For more information, please visit Good Bacteria.

Fish oils: These are beneficial in reducing inflammatory response and in improving bowel health.

For a more detailed approach to ensuring digestive health, please visit the Truestar Healthy Digestion Plan.

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