One of the first things I do when working with kids on the autistic-spectrum is take them off gluten and dairy. In 80% of cases we see improvement. Many times when taking kids off these two major food categories, we have to wean off slowly, or they will have a withdrawal-type response. I have seen kids fiending for their favorite foods, having not only meltdowns, but true withdrawal symptoms. They look like drug addicts not getting their fix.
How is it possible that these foods can impact behavior and emotions so profoundly?
One of the mechanisms is that gluten and dairy contain certain peptides, which are strings of amino acids.
Just to do a quick nutritional biochemistry recap – single amino acids make up peptides, and peptides make up whole proteins. I liken it to a pearl necklace – one single pearl would be an amino acid, a string of several pearls together would be a peptide, and the entire necklace would be a full protein.
There are specific sequences of amino acids in gluten and dairy that have the ability to bind with opioid receptors in the brain. These are the same receptors as morphine and heroin bind to. The result is feelings of calm, happiness, and even euphoria. Wonder bread and cow’s milk become the drugs, and our poor children become the addicts. They tend to be the kids that want nothing but mac and cheese and ice cream, and they become very agitated, withdrawn, aggressive, or upset when they can’t have them.
So why do some kids have this response and not others? It mostly has to do with lacking the enzymes that fully break those peptides down into single amino acids. It is also that these foods are inherantly problematic and contain problem sequences that are not found in other foods. There is research also showing that soy may contain similar peptides.
The solution? For some families, a gluten and dairy-free diet is the only way out, but should be put in place slowly and incrementally. For others, specific digestive enzymes called DPP-IV might be enough to help break down those peptides so that they can’t bind with the opioid receptors. Such diets are definitely restrictive and can be challenging to implement, but if a child is on the autistic spectrum, can make incredible differences in emotional states, behavior and cognition.
Gluten and dairy are generally inflammatory foods and are not my favorites overall, however the peptide-binding reaction is a definite mechanism by which they can impact young brains (and old brains too!). There are urine tests that can check for whether a child is producing those specific peptides in elevated ratios, which would indicate to me immediately that they’d be better off without them. It might be worth considering in any child with developmental delay, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety, depression or any other neurological or psycho-emotional issue.