August 02, 2021 | Sakshi Jain
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a common developmental disability that has a growing incidence. ASD is characterized by persistent deficits in social interactions, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests. Unfortunately, the world does not have a suitable response to ASD. The United States Food and Drug Administration has recognized only two drugs for its treatment – Risperidone and Aripiprazole. But these work on the associated behavioural problems and not the underlying cause of ASD. In addition, these drugs have disturbing side effects such as weight gain and sedation1.
In recent years, studies have shown a strong inflammatory state associated with ASD. Inflammation is the body’s way of fighting with protein-based invaders. Autism likely begins in the womb and it has been postulated that consuming processed foods during pregnancy increases the chances of the condition. Gut disorders are one of the most common problems associated with autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that children with ASD are three to five times more likely to suffer chronic gastrointestinal disorders.
There are plenty of foods that are present in our day-to-day diets that increase the complexity of digestion such as milk, wheat, corn syrup, soy, etc. These food items contain glyphosate, which is the world’s most-used chemical herbicide and thought to be the primary driver of ASD. Glyphosate continues its herbicidal activity within the gut, killing good bacteria and producing toxins in the gut. It also depletes serotonin which plays an important role in mood, gut health and bowel movements. This is one of the reasons why autistic children tend to have more constipation and diarrhoea2. A research study conducted amongst 70 autistic children, had them ingesting a gluten-casein (present in milk) free diet for 1-8 years. Of these, 81% improved significantly by the third month.
The study also shows that children with ASD have low levels of sulforaphane, which is important as it decreases inflammation and promotes antioxidants in the body. Adding cruciferous vegetables like broccoli sprouts, kale, cauliflower, collards, and cabbage to the diet can increase sulforaphane. Research conducted have shown that sulforaphane given to children as supplements showed only low or moderate improvement, but children who were given broccoli sprouts showed considerable improvements in terms of communication and social responsiveness3.
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in the body, working more as a hormone than the vitamin it is labelled to be. Deficiency of Vitamin D in early life can alter brain development, decrease body and brain antioxidant ability, and alter the immune system. It has strong anti-inflammatory effects. Brain functions in children with ASD have been shown to improve with Vitamin D supplementation. Vitamin D levels can be increased by adequate exposure to the sun in the morning, adding fortified plant-based milks in the diet such as almond milk, rice milk, pea milk, etc., fortified orange juice, and mushrooms. Apart from this, there are various supplements of Vitamin D available in the market that could help to maintain an adequate level4.
Switching from a regular diet to a plant-based diet decidedly improves the gut health of the children and eases the process of digestion. A diet that contains milk, meat, chickens, processed foods takes time to digest and adds to the intensity of ASD. A plant-based diet contains a lot of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, cereals, and legumes. These foods are rich in nutrients, easy to digest, high in fibre, reduce inflammation, and improve bowel movement5. Children with ASD tend to have limited food preferences and are generally picky when it comes to food. Parents should keep in mind that these diets require careful planning to make sure that the child’s food needs are being met.
Sadly, there is no cure for ASD and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. A rich and healthy diet is not only essential for autistic children but every child. Even while a majority of diseases can be cured by food, people end up taking medicines for them. A plant-based diet that is rich in fibre, trace elements, vitamins and probiotics could be the answer to ASD as it could for many other conditions. If changing a child’s diet could significantly constitute a response to ASD, then this approach should surely deserve a thought.
About the author: Sakshi Jain is pursuing PGDM from Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research, Mumbai. Sakshi is actively trying to build awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet.