A registered holistic nutritionist spoke Wednesday at the Chrysta Learning Centre in Maple Ridge about diet and autism.
Kerri Schmidt is a graduate of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition in Vancouver and specializes in children’s health, specifically in the fields of autism and attention deficit and hyperactive disorder.
Through her business called The Starting Point, Schmidt consults with parents and families to help them find nutritional solutions to common childhood ailments, creating, “individualized nutritional programs that focus on simple dietary interventions, targeted nutrients and key lifestyle strategies that work towards improving our children’s health.”
She says some children with autism do really well with special diets that eliminate certain food proteins in the body.
Schmidt says that gluten-free and dairy-free diets can be beneficial to children with autism because they are “very inflammatory proteins and are listed among the most common food allergens.”
She also recommends eliminating gluten and dairy from an autistic child’s diet because they can digest very poorly in the intestinal tract and leave undigested amino acid chains called peptides, some of which, Schmidt says, can have opiate-like activity.
“When these undigested peptides are absorbed into the bloodstream, they can cross the blood-brain barrier and negatively affect mood and behaviour,” said Schmidt.
According to Autism Canada, one theory about the effect of gluten on autistic children is that it leads to high levels of protein by-products in the system called gluteomorphines which can affect behaviour, such as reducing an autistic child’s desire for social interaction, it blocks pain messages and increases confusion.
Dr. Suzanne Lewis, vice-chair of Autism Canada, agrees that gut issues are a huge issue for children with autism. She estimates that around 50 per cent of children with autism have some type of gastro-intestinal related concern.
She said there is more and more evidence being found that the behaviours of individuals with autism can be treated by changes in their microbiome.
“If you test those microbiomes in kids with autism, or even adults, you find that the natural balance of organisms has generally changed, went from being more of a mixed environment of bugs that like oxygen and those that don’t, what we call aerobes and anaerobes,” said Lewis.
“Whereas in autism guts, there is generally a preponderance of the anaerobes and those bugs in particular thrive on those high-glycemic foods,” Lewis continued.
So, she said, if you are restricting gluten, you are going to prevent those bugs from growing as rapidly as they might otherwise and hopefully doing something that will change back into a more normal micro-biome environment.
Schmidt also says that many children with autism have nutrient deficiencies, zinc being one, and by supplementing this nutrient under the care of a experienced practitioner, it can result in the improvement in the area of picky eating, sensitivities like being oversensitive to stimuli like sounds, textures, taste, touch, cognition and immune function. In addition to zinc, Schmidt says, vitamins B6 and 12, magnesium, folate or folic acid and calcium magnesium, can also play roles in easing the symptoms of autism.
But Lewis, on the other hand, says of the thousands of children that she has seen, she has never seen an abnormality with zinc due to autism.
Lewis cautions that there is no one-size-fits-all kind of label on autism.
“You have to look at the underlying biology of each child to know, well, is this also a potential risk factor for getting worse,” she said, adding that there is a debate whether to give folic acid or folinic acid.
“You actually need to do proper studies to differentiate those conditions where you give one or the other,” she said.
Schmidt says that as a nutritionist she looks at the child’s health history from birth to present and the family’s health history.
“What I really do is listen closely to the parents because they have the clues as to what their child needs. They don’t know it, but they do,” she said, including what the child is eating and what they are not eating, in order to move the child forward.
Sometimes, she said, it’s not about completely overhauling the family’s diet, it’s just making small steps to increase nutrient density.
Nutrition, Schmidt added, is but about improving children’s wellness and health and improving the symptoms of autism.
The Christa Learning Centre teaches kids with specia needs, especially those with autism.