THE BLOG
08/28/2015 01:45 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2016

Scientists Show Immune System for Some With Autism Triggered by Gluten and Casein

My previous blog post describes the mechanism of action of gluten and how lessons learned from a failed cholera vaccine are tremendously helping those with autism (and over 50 million other Americans). So let me explain the current science that concludes gluten and casein are a trigger of autism, for some.

If you have a child with autism, eventually you will hear from a doctor that something is wrong with their immune system. Either your child is sick all the time or never sick at all. But eventually a doctor will order lab tests to see how your child's immune system is functioning. Whether they are testing for specific food allergy/sensitivities, inflammation, or specific antibodies... it is all related to the immune system.

There is a great research article called "Antibodies against Food Antigens in Patients with Autistic Spectrum Disorders" that was published in 2013 and can really help parents understand if they should try the gluten-free casein-free (GF/CF) diet. The researchers wanted to see if there was an increase in immune system activity to gluten and casein proteins in a group of children with autism who ate either an unrestricted diet or GF/CF diet. I will explain the highlights of that research...

Oh goodness... the gut again

Intestinal permeability is a HUGELY debated topic right now in both mainstream media and the scientific literature. There have been studies trying to understand if there is increased intestinal permeability in those with autism but the results have been mixed. Any parent of a child with autism is not surprised by, this because we know from experience that autism is largely different for each person. However, there are published results that show improvement in some children who go on a gluten free diet. But this "Antibodies to Food Antigens" research article from 2013 suggests that autism might be part of a different spectrum -- the non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity spectrum... at least for some.

Let's begin the experiment

162 children with autism were recruited, and of those 31 had been on a GF/CF diet for an average of 3 years; 44 healthy children were also recruited as a control group. They put these kids through a lot of tests to rule out other diseases such as celiac disease (CD) and then looked at intestinal permeability (via the lactulose/mannitol test), antibodies to food allergies (total IgE and IgG, specific IgG and IgE antibodies to gliadin/gluten, casein, α-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, and milk).

Quick reminder IgE antibodies indicate allergic reactions... think food allergy/sensitivity testing. IgG antibodies attack "invaders" to speed up removal, mediate cell interactions, and are evidence of exposure to things.

What'd they find?

25.6 percent of the children with autism had impaired intestinal barrier function and the GF/CF diet helps to regain normal intestinal barrier function. The researchers also found that in the ASD subjects there was an increase in immune reactivity to casein (casein IgG).

The results also indicate that anti-α-glidin-IgG is higher in the ASD group and are influenced by diet regardless of changes in intestinal permeability. That's huge! So even if your child has a healthy gut they can still react negatively to gluten.

Regarding gluten, there was more difference between the ASD group and control towards gluten. By measuring the deamidated gliadin peptides (DPG)-IgG the researchers could examine the effectiveness of the GF/CF diet. Gliadin is one of the main proteins in gluten and they found that DPG-IgG levels were elevated in the ASD subjects. There were some cases where it was elevated regardless of diet!

Yes, regardless of diet. This is remarkable because DPG is actually an early marker for CD and is a definite sign of gluten related intestinal damage. Remember these kids were screened for CD and didn't have it. This article is saying non-CD intestinal damage occurs in some ASD kids thus furthering the theory that a subgroup of autism is triggered by gluten.

Now gluten being a trigger for some with autism is factual. Kind-of changes the whole autism is a "neurodevelopment" problem... at least for some.

Link between food and behavior?

Unfortunately, there was no direct correlation between intestinal permeability and an increase in antibodies; however, that just points out that intestinal damage can occur many different ways as noted in this previous research.

Although every pathway of intestinal damage is not known, there is an increased sensitization to common food proteins which then can lead to behavioral changes specific to autism. Yes, think posturing... ever see your kid hanging over furniture, leaning their belly on stairs, etc. Well now you have a possible scientific explanation to their odd behavior.

Although, if they are suffering from intestinal damage posturing doesn't sound so odd now does it? Actually, it's quite a smart way to relieve pain.

The bottom line...

This research article supports the theory that the immune system for a subgroup of those with autism is triggered by gluten and casein. Which also means resulting behavior and symptoms of autism for this subgroup is triggered by gluten and casein. Let's pause for a moment and think about that...

Next time your kid has some pizza for dinner and then starts behaving funny please remember this sentence. This research article supports the theory that a subgroup of autism is triggered by gluten and casein. Bon appetite!

Theresa Lyons, MS, MS, PhD is an Ivy League scientist, medical strategist, autism advocate, and Mama Bear. Want to heal your child from autism now? Click here to get the 5 Steps to Start Healing Autism quick-start guide.