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Gluten- and Casein-Free Diet and Autism

Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet May Benefit Some Children With Autism
by Mommy MD Guide Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH

A gluten-free, casein-free diet could lead to improvements in behavior and physiological symptoms in some children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a recent study* conducted by Penn State researchers.

Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. Casein is a protein found in milk and other dairy products. Consumption of foods containing gluten and casein can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms, immune reactions, and inflammation in sensitive individuals.

Previous studies show that children with ASD commonly have gastrointestinal problems and allergies. Some experts believe that gluten and casein cause an immune response in children with ASD, and these proteins might also trigger GI symptoms and behavioral problems.

The Penn State researchers asked 387 parents of children with ASD to complete a questionnaire about their children’s GI symptoms, food allergies, and suspected food sensitivities, and whether the children followed a gluten-free, casein-free diet.

The results of the questionnaire suggested that a gluten-free, casein-free diet was more effective in improving ASD behaviors, physiological symptoms and social behaviors for those children with GI symptoms and with allergy symptoms compared to those without these symptoms. Parents reported reductions in GI symptoms in their children as well as improvements in their children’s social behaviors, such as language production, eye contact, engagement, attention span, requesting behavior and social responsiveness, when they followed a gluten-free, casein-free diet.

These findings add credence to the notion that autism might be more than a neurological disease; it also involves the GI tract and the immune system. By following a gluten-free, casein-free diet, it’s likely that inflammation in the body is reduced, and this might positively affect brain function.

Parents who eliminated all gluten and casein from their children’s diets reported that a greater number of their children’s ASD behaviors, physiological symptoms and social behaviors improved after starting the diet compared to children whose parents did not eliminate all gluten and casein from their children’s diets. Greater improvements in ASD behaviors were noted among children who strictly followed the diet for six months or longer. Completely eliminating gluten and casein—rather than just reducing the amount of these proteins in the diet—produced the greatest benefit.

Following a gluten-free, casein-free diet appears to offer a number of benefits to children with ASD. To determine if this dietary strategy will work for your child, it’s important to completely eliminate both gluten and casein for at least six months. It’s not going to be easy, but if it helps reduce ASD symptoms and improve your child’s quality of life, it will definitely be worthwhile.

Pennesi Christine M.; Klein Laura Cousino. Effectiveness of the gluten-free, casein-free diet for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder: Based on parental report. Nutritional Neuroscience, 2012 DOI: 

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