Food Allergies and Autism: Is There a Link?

Food Allergies and Autism

Food allergies and autism rates have both been on the rise for the last decade or more. There has been plenty of speculation, and some research, about why either or both of these seem to be more prevalent than ever before in children. From better diagnoses to genetically-modified foods, the ideas are far-ranging. But what if the two are related? Maybe the two have increased side-by-side for a reason. Early research has found some connections, but much more work needs to be done to clarify and explain any possible link.

Connections Between Food Allergies and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Both of these conditions in children have been rising in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases of autism spectrum disorders increased 78 percent from 2002 to 2008. The CDC has also reported that cases of food allergies increased by 18 percent between 1997 and 2007. These are both significant increases and raise some important questions. There are many ideas being raised as possible explanations, but only a few studies so far have looked at the parallel between these two conditions and whether it could provide explanations.

One study found that among children diagnosed with autism, food allergies were more prevalent as compared to a control group. It has also been shown that children with autism tend to be picky eaters. They have certain food aversions and they suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms. Even more intriguing are the occasional case studies that describe children whose autism symptoms improved significantly when they were put on gluten-free and casein-free diets. Gluten and casein are proteins known to be allergens in wheat and milk.

The Role of Inflammation in Food Allergies and Autism

The results of these studies raise even more questions: Are food allergies and autism causing each other? Or do they only make symptoms worse? What exactly is the connection? One idea is that the connection between the two conditions is inflammation. This is the normal immune system response to fighting off disease and infection. Inflammation is also the response that we see in allergic reactions. The immune system mistakenly responds to a food protein, like casein, in some people.

An interesting study found that inflammation could be at the root of autism in many children. It may be that in autistic children, inflammation outweighs anti-inflammatory signals in the brain. In healthy people, these two things are balanced, while in a child with autism it may be out of whack. Because the balance could be skewed to varying degrees, this could explain why autism occurs on a spectrum, from severe to mild.

So if allergies are inflammatory responses and autism may be the result of chronic inflammation, could the two be related by this connection? That still remains to be proven, but studies have shown that if a mother is diagnosed with allergies during pregnancy, her child is at a greater risk of developing autism.

What Can Parents Do About Food Allergies and Autism?

The current evidence that there is a connection is compelling, but not yet definitive. If you are a parent or a parent-to-be, you are probably concerned about both food allergies and autism. So what can you do with all this information? There are no guidelines, but it seems as if inflammation may be a part of the problem. Chronic inflammation has already been proven to play a role in diseases, like heart disease. Reducing inflammation in the body can only be a good thing, whether or not it turns out to impact a child’s risk of developing food allergies or autism.

If you are an expectant mother, take steps to reduce your own inflammation. Reducing inflammation is all about diet and lifestyle. Drinking less, quitting smoking, exercising and sleeping enough are all healthy lifestyle factors will help limit inflammation. Diet is also very important. Reduce inflammatory foods like refined carbohydrates, sugar and fried and processed foods. Eat more anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, olive oil and fatty fish.

The evidence is still coming in, but the connections we can already see between food allergies, autism and inflammation are interesting. While we may not know all the details yet, all people, not just expectant mothers, can take steps to live healthier lifestyles, to reduce inflammation and to possibly reduce the risk of developing food allergies and autism spectrum disorders.

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