Autism and Digestion: The Surprising Link
A new survey by Enzymedica and the Enzyme Research Group (ERG), links autism and digestive problems, and suggests diet modification and dietary supplements as successful tools for families facing the diagnosis.
While autism is generally considered a neurological disorder, the new survey reminds us that autistic children face additional health challenges, including 80% who report digestive difficulty, sensitivity, or intestinal inflammation.
Survey Participants Tout Special Diets for Autism
Food sensitivities and cravings are widespread in the autism community. The ERG survey found that 35% of children craved sugary treats, 30% dairy, 25% wheat and 32% junk foods; and cravings were not mutually exclusive.
Interestingly, the craved foods also caused the greatest digestive reaction. Lactose, gluten, casein, and phenol were the top reactive contenders in children on the spectrum.
- 70% currently follow, or have tried, a restrictive diet
- 52% gluten-free
- 55% casein-free
- 44% eliminate artificial flavors and additives
- 70% use digestive enzymes and probiotics
Since even healthy foods can cause problems, supplementation can be used to prevent nutritional deficiency. 80% of parents said they offer dietary supplements in some form, typically in combination with a special diet, to soothe and support healthy digestion, and reduce dietary sensitivities.
Healthy Digestion Requires Digestive Enzymes
Our body uses enzymes to enhance digestion and turn the food we eat into energy. Produced throughout the digestive tract, and available from raw foods and supplements, these enzymes include amylase for carbohydrates, lipase for fats, protease for proteins, and cellulase for fiber.
"Many of our children are enzyme deficient," writes Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D., C.C.N., a board-certified clinical nutritionist in her book, Digestive Wellness for Children. "These deficiencies can play a pivotal role in the development of childhood disease." Lipski has over 20 years experience working in the field of holistic and complementary medicine and views enzymes as the body's workhorses.
"In children, enzyme supplements have been used successfully to treat food allergies, gastroenteritis, asthma, and other illnesses, and research on enzymes for children is promising," she continues.
Like healthy bones and muscle tissue, our enzyme producing organs rely on good nutrition to fuel production. Physical stressors and inflammation are also implicated as a component in compromised enzyme capacity, and these conditions are common with autism.
The ERG researchers found a statistically significant 80% of autistic children experience digestive disturbances related to certain types of food, with dairy topping the list. 57% said dairy is the culprit, and wheat was second in line with 43%.
Autism Breeds Picky Eaters
"Many children on the spectrum are unwilling to eat a sufficient quantity of raw, unprocessed foods," declares Kristin Selby Gonzalez , Director of Autism Education for Enzymedica, herself the mother of a son with autism. "It's unfortunate because these healthy foods naturally contain the enzymes and micronutrients needed to support a healthy intestine and aid digestion."
Taking a daily enzyme supplement can create the foundation of a healthy digestive process," says Ellen Cutler, D.C., whose Mill Valley, California practice caters to patients with allergies and digestive distress. "A product containing a full spectrum blend of all enzymes is considered an ideal digestive aid."*
While typical parents may experience difficulty getting growing children to eat their fruits and veggies, consider the behavioral challenges present in some autism diagnoses. Families with autistic children often find mealtime a battleground.
The junk foods and processed snacks craved by many children on the spectrum contain common allergens which cause food sensitivities. These types of foods are hard to digest and are a frequent and familiar source of the constipation and diarrhea autistic children experience.
Science Investigates the Autism / Digestion Link
A 2009 study in Pediatics, described a gene called MET, involved in both brain development and the process of gastrointestinal system repair. The study indicated a genetic variation may contribute to increased risk for autism spectrum disorder that includes familial gastrointestinal dysfunction.
More than 58% of parents, aunts and uncles, 45% of grandparents, and 20% of siblings reported problems in the ERG survey. While still considered controversial, the new survey indicates the familial autism/digestion link may indeed be viable.
Diet and Enzymes Provide Hope
"Given the option, my son would survive on processed snacks and treats like cookies, crackers, chicken nuggets and French fries," declares Gonzalez. "I've learned by keeping them out of his diet and adding enzymes Jaxson behaves better, his attention is more focused, and many of his digestive reactions evaporate."*
About the Survey:
Enzymedica sponsored the recent survey in association with The Enzyme Research Group. The survey evaluated 143 parents with children on the autism spectrum, surveying their experience with digestive health issues. The survey was conducted online and in anonymous interview and ran from May - June, 2010.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.