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Autism, gluten and dairy: figuring out if there's a link

August 11, 2008 | 11:31 am

Many parents of children with autism say their kids do better when placed on gluten-free or dairy-free diets. (Go, for example, here, here and here.) But anecdotal reports are a little hard to parse -- ideally, what one would have is a carefully designed study in which children's diets are altered or not and their behavior and progress then measured. Such studies are rarely done -- tricky to design, expensive to fund, and probably not the kind of study most likely to lure drug company money.

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are embarking on one now. "Hundreds and hundreds of parents think this works but we need serious evidence,” says lead investigator Dr. Fernando Navarro, assistant professor of pediatrics at the institution, in the university's release.

"A lot of children with autism have gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and diarrhea," adds co-investigator Katherine Loveland, also a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "There are neurotransmitters and neuroreceptors in the gut that correspond with those in the brain. There are some scientific reasons to think that some kids may benefit from this diet."

It's a small pilot study, funded by the University of Texas Health Science Center's department of pediatrics. Thirty-eight children with autism ages 3 to 9 will first have all gluten and dairy removed from their diet. Then half will be given gluten and milk powder and the other half a placebo. Then progress will be tracked for four weeks. Behavior will be tracked using psychological tests and leakiness of the gut via urine tests.

Seems like this would be one to watch.

-- Rosie Mestel

P.S. And here's a thoughtful take of one autism specialist who's not so sure about these diets because he says, if anything, children with autism tend to be picky eaters and attempts should be made to expand their diet.

-- Rosie Mestel   

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Comments (5)

Hundreds and hundreds of parents once thought secretin was an effective treatment for autism. It isn't. The evidence for GFCF is similarly weak.

Well, while it is great that they are doing a test, it is basically useless. The testing needs to be done for longer than 1 month. Unless the child is a "good responder" like my son whose eye contact, words and tantruming stopped w/in 1 month of the diet, it isnt going to show much. Never mind that studes done by researchers for celiac disease state that it takes at least 6 months for gluten to be out of a persons's system.

The study needs to be done for a longer duration to show true results.

4 weeks isnt long takes about 3 months for gluten free to be more effectiive...there needs to be a serious study into the poisoning of wheat,on a large range of sickness

Disappearance of anti-Saccharomyces cerevisiae antibodies in coeliac
disease during a gluten-free diet.

Original Articles

European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology. 18(1):75-78,
January 2006.
Mallant-Hent, Rosalie Ch. a; Mary, B.; von Blomberg, E. b; Yuksel,
Zhere c; Wahab, Peter J. d; Gundy, Chad e; Meyer, Gerrit A. f;
Mulder, Chris J.J. a
Background: Anti-Saccharomyces cerevisiae antibodies (ASCAs) are
known to be positive in about 65% of Crohn's disease patients, in up
to 43% of coeliac disease patients and in 0-5% of healthy controls.
Coeliac disease might be an in-vivo model for unravelling the role of
mucosal integrity in the formation of ASCAs since mucosal
abnormalities normalize during a gluten-free diet (GFD).

Aims: Firstly, to evaluate, retrospectively, the frequency of ASCA
positivity in coeliac patients both at diagnosis and during follow-up
on a GFD. Secondly, to study the correlation between ASCA positivity
and mucosal damage.

Methods: One hundred and eleven patients with histologically proven
coeliac disease, positive endomysium antibodies on diagnosis and
normalization of trans-glutaminase antibodies (t-TGAs) after
successful adherence to a GFD were included. ASCAs, IgA and IgG were
tested by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays both at diagnosis and
after the GFD.

Results: Eighty-three children and 28 adults were included in this
study. The mean age at diagnosis was 4.6 years for children and 48
years for adults. At diagnosis 15/83 (18%) of children were ASCA
positive (either IgG or IgA), compared to 17/28 (61%) of adults.
After successful adherence to a GFD and normalization of t-TGAs only
one child remained ASCA positive (1%) compared to eight adults (29%).
Two out of 28 (7%) adults remained positive for both IgA and IgG

Conclusion: In the majority of patients ASCAs disappeared during a
GFD. In children this disappearance of ASCA positivity was more
pronounced. This can be explained by the well-known fact that gut
permeability normalizes much better in children than in adults. Also,
the adults had higher levels of ASCAs at diagnosis. This was probably
because they had been exposed to gluten for longer and therefore had
more long-lasting damage.

(C) 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
saccharo was the yeast used in hep-b vax. It also binds heavy metals

From Drs. Navarro and Loveland (researchers of the study): The study is a pilot study, in part to test the safety of such a diet, and so is shorter in duration. They are pleased that parents are so engaged in the discussion. They don't want to speculate on the length of time until after it is over. Depending on the results, they hope to do more extensive and perhaps longer studies on diet and autism. - Deborah Lake, Media Relations, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.


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