Autism Spectrum Disorder and Food; Is There a Relationship?

In the months following my undergraduate graduation I did what any normal recent grad would do: I looked for a job.  I was still unsure of whether I wanted to continue on toward a master’s level education, but more unsure of whether I could even find a decent job with only a B.A. in psychology (it’s not easy).  Through hours of searching through Craigslist and other various job search engines, I began to notice a trend:

“Behaviorist Needed for After-School Program for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder;” “ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) Specialist Needed for Non-Profit Company Working With Children with Autism;” “Tutor/Nanny/Daycare Personnel Needed to Work with Children on the Spectrum.” 

Line after line showed similar results.

And then I moved on to graduate school to attain a M.A. in Clinical Psychology and again, began looking for a job.  The results were practically undistinguishable from the ones I found nearly 3 years earlier; except there were more positions opening!  Even the graduate school I attended was in the midst of developing an entire floor of the building dedicated to their new ABA program, a fast growing field in the realm of psychology (Although ABA is not solely dedicated to individuals on the autism spectrum, it is a large focus of the major.  Their method lies in behavioral techniques and modification – altering behavior based on reward, positive reinforcement, and the like. Emotions are not at the forefront of treatment like it would be in a clinical psychological setting).  I had come in contact with children on the spectrum throughout the course of my traineeship as a middle school counselor and had several acquaintances with siblings or children on the spectrum, but I had never received advanced training in the area.  But obviously, this was a big deal.  I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘what causes this developmental disorder? Why is this becoming so prevalent now when it was barely recognized 50 years ago?’

My parents and grandparents didn’t know any elementary school classmates who had autism or asperger’s.  And today, they don’t have any friends or know of anyone their age who are on the spectrum.  So what’s going on?

In talking with peers, professors, and other individuals about the topic, I’ve heard just about every theory in the book:

“We are in the midst of an evolutionary process.  The human brain is evolving to disregard emotional and social cues and focussing solely on intellectual and logical processes;” “Autism Spectrum Disorder has always been around. We just never noticed it before because it didn’t have a name;” “There must be something in the water.” 

Sure, these are all possible reasons, but there’s something to be said about the last theory.  There may not be something in the water, per say, but there definitely is something in the food that we eat.  Especially with all the changes and “advancements” we’ve seen in farming and agriculture in the last century.  Cancer rates have also increased over the last century.  See a relationship?  Maybe.

An article published recently in The New York Times by Moises Velasquez-Manoff proposed an even bigger theory: that a third of cases of autism appear to be the result of an inflammatory response that occurs while the child is in the womb.  The immune system produces an inflammatory response when it feels like it is under attack by something foreign in an attempt to return to homeostasis.  In autistic individuals, the inflammatory response overpowers the anti-inflammatory response and is heightened at varying degrees, hence the reason autism is viewed as on a spectrum. The article goes on to discuss animal studies performed to support this idea, such as injecting “autistic antibodies” (that bind to fetal brain proteins) into the wombs of an experimental animal group and noticing marked autistic behaviors in their young such as repetition and social withdrawal. The question now is, what are our bodies trying to protect us against? Why are these inflammation responses occurring?

Duane Law, L.Ac. has done a bit of research on inflammation, allergies, and the stress response.  In one of the chapters of his book, Before Meds After Meds: Complimentary and Alternative Medicine for Anxiety & Depression, he discusses how food allergies occur.  Our digestive systems are not always able to properly break down some of the foods that we eat and, thinking we may have just swallowed a foreign substance, sends the body in to a protective mode and causes inflammation.  If it’s serious enough, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, stress hormones are released, and sugar is poured from cells into our blood stream to make sure we have enough energy to run or fight against the hypothetical danger.  An increase in blood sugar levels results in an increase in dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter (the same neurotransmitter that accounts for addictive behaviors) and causes us to feel cravings.  So basically, the foods that we so often crave, like refined sugar and sweets, are the things that we are allergic to because our body cannot naturally process them.  Let’s break this down a bit more. If we abide by the standard American diet, we are constantly eating foods we are allergic to without even realizing it.  Think about it – You can go weeks without eating fast food but the second you put your mouth around a Big Mac, you want another one.  Same with sweets – the more chocolate cake you eat, the more you crave it.  People who suddenly quit drinking Coke or Diet Coke get headaches, irritability, intense cravings, and moodiness – all because our body is stuck in this vicious cycle of addiction and inflammation.

This idea opens so many doors of possible answers to many every-day health problems.  If our stress response is being kicked and inflammation is occurring every time we eat something that is unnatural, what other kinds of effects do you think that has on our organs? Our moods? Or even on our brain?  Could it have something to do with the inflammation response that occurs in the brain of individuals with autism, as discussed in the article?  These are all questions that have yet to be researched and answered.  But I do know one thing – it should definitely make us think twice about the things we put into our bodies.

For more information on autism spectrum disorder, including resources, please check out:
http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism or http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/asd.cfm
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6 thoughts on “Autism Spectrum Disorder and Food; Is There a Relationship?

  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I have often wondered about the effect of modern foods regarding autism or on add/adhd. Food can be so healing or it can create illness.

    After reading about the inflammatory effects of grains, dairy, legumes, sugars and alcohol in “It Starts with Food,” I began an experiment that eliminated all of these food groups from my diet for 30 days. The difference was remarkable! You can read my results and observations here:
    http://healthyazblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/whole30-results/

  2. Definitely believe that which you said. Your favorite reason
    seemed to be on the net the simplest thing to be aware of.

    I say to you, I definitely get irked while people think about worries that they just don’t know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people could take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

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