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What Is the Connection Between Gluten and Autism?

Most breads contain gluten.
Wheat contains gluten, which some people believe may be linked to autism.
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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 05 April 2014
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No scientific evidence links a gluten-free diet with improvement of autism symptoms, but some parents report strong connections between gluten and autism in their children. The subject of gluten and autism sparks controversy and debate among the medical community, with some doctors recommending a gluten-free diet to help autistic children. Researchers who study gluten and autism report no significant improvements in children on the diet.

The link between gluten and autism is based on the theory of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. Proponents of the diet say these proteins, called peptides, don’t break down in the gastrointestinal tract of autistic children and prompt the release of opiates. Opiates act similarly to morphine by blocking pain signals, which might lead to repetitive behavior and difficulty concentrating. These chemical actions affect the central nervous system and brain like a narcotic drug.

A specialist in the United Kingdom dubbed the condition autistic enterocolititis, but it is also called leaky gut syndrome. News of the possible connection between gluten and autism quickly spread worldwide, giving parents hope that a gluten-free diet could reduce common symptoms in autistic children. No scientific proof exists, however, of leaky gut syndrome or autistic enterocolititis.

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Some parents of autistic children report benefits after removing food containing gluten from the diet. They say their children gained longer attention spans and were more prone to make eye contact with others. Others report fewer behavioral problems, such as tantrums, repetitive motions, and bouts of aggression. Some parents found their children were able to master simple tasks on the diet, like getting dressed and using the bathroom.

This treatment usually includes removing casein from the diet, a protein found in dairy products that some people cannot fully digest. A gluten-free, casein-free diet is generally used by parents hoping to improve autism symptoms. They typically substitute other food to ensure their children receive adequate vitamin D, calcium, and protein.

The diet is considered difficult to maintain because autistic children might be fussy eaters and prefer certain foods, especially those containing gluten and casein. In fact, some parents report their children seem to crave these foods and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they are placed on a gluten-free diet. Some doctors suggest maintaining the diet for a year to produce results.

Opponents of the gluten and autism theory believe any behavioral changes seen in children on the diet likely come from other therapies that improve mental and behavior development, especially over a year-long period. Some doctors say the diet simply treats gastrointestinal symptoms commonly associated with autism, but has little effect on behavior. They agree the diet has become popular, but say it is not scientifically valid.

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