Autism and the Diet

Nutrition and Autism: How Food Can Change The Mind

Can Autism Be Cured With Nutrition?

Autism is perhaps the fastest rising behavioral “disorder” on the planet. Recorded cases increased 556% between 1991 and 1997. That’s huge!

Of course, a lot of the increase is due to increased awareness of the autistic disorder and a broadening definition of what it means to be autistic in the first place.

Indeed, autism is a widely recognized but broadly defined “disorder” that’s not so much a disease as it is a unique cognitive profile. The most popular caricature of an autistic is Dustin Hoffman in RainMan, but this portrayal is not accurate. Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman character is to autism what Chief Wahoo is to Indians.

Autism actually confers a lot of wonderful benefits to those who have it.

Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man

It’s better to think of autism as a peculiar brain type that has remarkable benefits, and a few ugly drawbacks…….like depressed social engagement, a lack of “emotive” neurosensations, and a higher chance of having other neurodisorders like cerebral palsy, down syndrome, or ADHD.

Autism is a complicated state of mind that cannot be pinned down to a particular cause. Different genes certainly play a large role, and various environmental factors can act as a force multiplier.

In fact, nutrition and autism are intertwined big time, and in some cases (but not all) changes in the diet can have significant impact on the unsavory side effects of being autistic.  In  fact, in some cases better nutrition can heal autism completely. (Gated link).

The link between autism and nutrition naturally fascinates me for two reasons:

1). I love nutrition and studying how the body and mind works because of it

2). I have a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism….although I’ve never been formally diagnosed)

So let’s talk about how our food can heal conditions of the mind.

Autism and Nutrition

Autism, Casein, and Gluten Intolerance

Autistic people frequently have leaky guts. This means that food molecules that are traditionally digested in the intestine actually escape into the bloodstream where they can cause havoc.

There are two nutritional culprits with the “leaky guts” problem: casein and gluten peptides. Casein is a compound found in all dairy products, and gluten is a protein commonly found in wheat products. Both are metabolized in the intestine, and if they stay there they’re more or less harmless. However, if they escape bad things can happen.

Casein actually gets broken down into a compound called casomorphine (yes, that morphine!) when it’s digested, and casomorphins act like an opiate (the stuff found in heroin and codine) that can bind to different neuroreceptors in the brain and central nervous system, and induce drug-like effects…..and neurological disorders.

I’ve written before how the presence of casomorphins is actually the reason people feel like they’re “addicted to cheese.

For the purpose of our story, gluten basically acts the same way. Safe if it stays in the gut, a little terror if it somehow breaks out.

Autistics often have a gluten and casein intolerance, and restrictive diets have shown to be effective in reducing the social abnormalities that sometimes go along with autism.

For example, one study conducted in Scandinavia in 1995 followed a group of 15 autistic adolescents for four years on a gluten and casein free diet. After one year the majority of the “oddball” social behaviors associated with autism had evaporated, and modest improvements were made in subsequent years.

Additional studies have produced the same effect.

Autistic Children

Autism, Your Genetics, And Nutrition

A large portion of autism is determined by your genes. However, the way genes behave in the body is highly influenced by the physiological environment they reside in. The study of this phenomenon is called epigenetics, and epigenetics is allllll about the nutrition baby. I’ve written in the past about how natural plant foods control the subtleties of your DNA and cell replication. It turns out that autistic people have a harder time creating certain physiological environments for certain genes, in particular one process called “methylation.”

There’s no need to get too nerdy, but your body’s ability to methylate and de-methylate different genes is tied at the hip to a bouquet of certain nutrients (like folic acid, among others), and a deficiency of these nutrients leads to an increased expression of typical “autistic behavior.”

When autistic’s receive supplementation or diets rich in methylation inducing nutrients, their conditions tend to get better.

Food Controls the Mind And The Body

It’s common to associate better nutrition with increased physical appearance/performance, but we all too often forget that the brain feeds on the same nutrients as the rest of the body.

And autistic people just happen to have to have their biological rhythm wound up to a slightly different drum beat than the rest of us, and poor nutrition can cause these small differnces to be more egregious.


Theije, Caroline, et. al. “Pathways Underlying the Gut-To-Brain Connection in Autism Spectrum Disorders as Future Targets for Disease Management” European Journal of Pharmacology. September 2011, Vol. 668, pgs. S70-S80.


Helt, Molly, et. al. “Can Children With Autism Recover? If So, How?”  Neuropsychology Review. November 4, 2011. Volume 18, pgs. 339-366.


Adams, James, et. al. “Effect of A Vitamin/Mineral Supplement on Children and Adults With Autism” BMC Pediatrics. December 12, 2011.


Muhle, Rebecca, et. al. “The Genetics of Autism.” Pediatrics.  May 1, 2004. Vol. 113 pgs. 472-486.


Miyake, Kunio, et. al. “Epigenetics in Autism and Other Neurodegenerative Diseases.”  Neurodegenerative Diseases. Winter 2012. Vol. 724, pgs. 91-98.


Knivsberg, Ann Marie, et. al. “Effect of A Dietary Intervention on Autistic Behavior.”  Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Winter 2003.  Vol. 18 pgs. 247-256.


Knivsberg, Ann Marie, et. al. “Autistic Syndromes and Diet: A Follow-Up Study.”  Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research. Fall, 1995. Vol. 39, pgs.  223-236.


James, Jill, et. al. “Metabolic Biomarkers of Increased Oxidative Stress and Impaired Methylation Capacity in Children With Autism.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. December 2004.  Vol. 80 pgs. 1611-1617.


Cornish, E. et. al. “Gluten and Casein Free Diets in Autism: A Study of the Effects on Food Choice and Nutrition.”


2 thoughts on “Nutrition and Autism: How Food Can Change The Mind”

  1. I’ve been reading some things about how coconut oil is being used as/may be a treatment for autism. Do you think it’s true? I’d like to believe it but I’m not totally sold on the idea.


    1. Jeff,

      I’m honestly not sure. I know the casein/gluten connection with autism is pretty well established, I’m less sure about other things.

      I think it’s important to remember that autism can mean a few different things, and autistic people in general have nutritional needs that are more specific and diverse than general. So…..maybe?

      I’ll look into it.


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