Role of wheat and dairy
Besides EFAs, some foods are virtual brain poisons to certain individuals. The Autism Research Unit at the University of Sunderland has conducted studies involving more than 1200 children, over an 11-year period, and found that autism is a metabolic disorder rather than a mental one.
The ARU researchers concluded that autism is the result of peptides outside the brain and nervous system causing opioid activity or the breakdown of the body’s own opioid peptides. These naturally occurring peptides include enkephalins and endorphins, and play a key role in regulating brain and neurological function. Disruption of their activities may, in turn, affect perception, cognition, emotions, mood and behaviour.
In autism, the gut problems are caused by an initial insult - from the MMR vaccine, illnesses such as encephalitis and meningitis, or even an overload of pesticides. There is also evidence that autism can be caused by broad-spectrum antibiotics, possibly as a result of their effect on the immune system. Genetic factors may also predispose an individual to gut abnormalities.
The controversial research carried out by gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Wakefield at the Royal Free Hospital in London into the MMR vaccine revealed bowel abnormalities in a large number of 18-month-old children who developed the gut problems and autism shortly after receiving the triple vaccination. Urine tests also showed that these children had significant vitamin B12 deficiency, a vitamin necessary for brain and nervous system development (Lancet, 1998; 351: 637-41).
The theory proposed by Dr Wakefield and Paul Shattock, of the ARU, is that the MMR vaccine overloads the immune system, enabling a weak measles infection to become established in the gut. The bowel is then unable to produce sufficient enzymes to digest food properly and the gut becomes permeable or ‘leaky’, allowing short-chain amino acids from partially digested milk and wheat to pass into the bloodstream. Some of these molecules enter the brain, where they can interfere with neural functioning. This process can be exacerbated in a child who is low in EFAs, which itself can reduce immune function and cause digestive disorders.
When wheat and casein (the main protein in milk) are broken down in a baby’s stomach, they produce casamorphins and glutamorphins.
'Casamorphins effectively drug the baby,' says Mr Shattock. 'That effect of milk and wheat on a baby’s brain should stop when the child grows, but if it doesn’t, we believe that conditions like autism and dyslexia occur.'
Removing dietary gluten and casein may offer a simple solution. In autistic children, removing gluten from the diet resulted in significant improvements in the majority of them, particularly in concentration, sleep patterns and language development (Autism, 1999; 3: 45-69). Many children suffered withdrawal effects, with many symptoms initially getting worse probably because of the loss of opioids (produced by gluten-containing foods), which had led to dependency effects similar to those seen with narcotics.
However, children with a damaged gut may not be the only ones to benefit from a milk- and gluten-free diet (see box above).
A toxic onslaught
Another area to consider is the modern child’s increasingly toxic environment, combined with a diet of ever-decreasing nutritional value. Today’s children are assaulted with heavy-metal pollution and additives in food. Exposure to lead, even at low levels, is associated with aggression and learning disabilities, as is exposure to mercury. Children nowadays come into contact with heavy metals through tapwater, air pollution, tobacco smoke, fish and shellfish, pesticides, children’s vaccines (mercury-based thimerosol is a common preservative), processed foods and toiletries. Just tiny amounts stored in the body can have an adverse effect on health.