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Foods that contain gluten often cause digestive difficulties in sensitive persons, especially those diagnosed with Autism and ADHD.
But what is gluten anyway? And why do sensitive persons react like they do?
WHAT IS GLUTEN?
Gluten is the main protein in wheat, rye and barley (and to a lesser degree, oats). It is what gives flour strength and elasticity. There are different amounts of gluten in different types of flour. For example, bread flour is higher in gluten than pastry flour.
Just like with milk allergy and lactose intolerance, gluten affects people in different ways. Persons who are truly allergic to gluten are usually diagnosed with Celiac Disease, a serious digestive disorder that affects many systems in the body. People who have an allergic reaction to gluten must avoid ALL foods that contain gluten. In this article, I will focus on gluten intolerance.
When a person has a gluten intolerance, it is not always necessary to completely remove gluten from the diet. However, a large percent of persons, including children with Autism (and ADHD), respond favorably to removing gluten from the diet.
WHY DO SENSITIVE PERSONS REACT THE WAY THEY DO TO GLUTEN?
There are theories explaining why some people react to gluten the way they do. However, recent research has revealed that the main culprit of many negative gluten reactions is lack of the enzyme “DPP4.” The DPP4 enzyme works similarly to the lactase enzyme. Lactase breaks down lactose in milk. When a person has a deficiency in lactase, dairy products cause digestive upsets. DPP4 breaks down gluten in a similar way. (The milk protein casein is affected by DPP4 deficiency as well. But we will discuss casein intolerance in a future article). When a child is deficient in DPP4, their body is not able to completely break down gluten. The result is partially broken down gluten proteins in the gut. These gluten proteins show the same effect as opioids. That is, they have a drugging effect on the child.
Approximately 50% of children placed on a gluten-free diet (most often coupled with casein restriction as well) show significant improvements. For example, improvements in language skills, bowel health, hyperactive behavior, and skin problems (particularly eczema). Sleep is improved and the child has more energy. This is only a partial list of improvements.
Though there is allergy testing available for gluten intolerance, it is not always accurate. Thus, an elimination diet is probably the easiest and most accurate way to tell for sure whether you or your child (or both, gluten intolerance tends to affect more than one person in a family) has a gluten sensitivity.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WITH THE ELIMINATION DIET
If you choose to try the elimination diet, you will need to remove all of the foods that contain gluten, and leave everything else the same. Many people avoid casein during this time as well. However, if it just turns out to be gluten that's causing issues, it means a less restrictive diet in the long run. If you try the gluten elimination diet, you may notice some improvements, but not as much as you were hoping for. In that case, you can then choose to try to eliminate casein as well. (In a future article, I will address casein intolerance in more depth).
The biggest risk with the elimination diet is nutritional deficiency. Finding replacements for the foods you are eliminating is important to maintain nutritional health. The biggest difficulty is that many, if not most kids with autism, eat large amounts of breads and pasta (think macaroni and cheese, goldfish crackers, chicken nuggets, and fish sticks). The good news is that there are lots of choices for gluten free pastas and breads today. And many of them taste quite good. However, if you are concerned about nutritional deficiencies, a good multivitamin with iron would be a good way to help offset the potential nutrient losses (Gummy Vitamins do not have Iron). If you are someone who likes to cook from scratch, a table with conversions will be helpful:
Source: Bing Images
Below is a list of the foods to avoid if you are on a gluten-free diet. Below the list are two books that go much more in-depth on gluten-sensitivity as well as other potential intolerances, toxicities, and nutrition deficiencies seen in kids with Autism and ADHD.
Also, I included a link to a lentil pasta that my son really likes. It can be purchased at local supermarkets (Walmart) as well as on Amazon.