Gluten and Your Child’s Brain Function

There is no doubt in our household that digestion and brain function are intimately connected.
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It’s almost as though there is a straight wire from our gut to our brain. I’ve witnessed the effects of various foods on our overall health time and time again. I now know through our family’s healing journey that a wide spectrum of neurological symptoms have been linked to the ingestion of highly inflammatory foods such as gluten. Gluten is the protein molecules of any grain such as wheat, rye, barley, corn and even rice. The grains that are most problematic for those who are gluten sensitive are typically wheat, rye and barley. It’s important know, however, that a person can have a sensitivity to any of the other grains as well.

Gluten can trigger a chronic immune response in the body that inflames the brain and can cause hypoxia (a pathological condition in which the body as a whole is deprived of adequate oxygen supply). In addition, partially digested gluten particles can leak through the gut lining and have a morphine (narcotic) affect on the brain which is addictive. The neurological symptoms can range anywhere from simple brain fog (the inability to focus and concentrate) to headaches, migraines, anxiety, depression, impaired brain function such as autism and ADHD, peripheral neuropathy (tingling of the arms, hand, legs and feet) and even schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Many autism parents tell me they could never implement a gluten-free diet in their home because pizza and mac n cheese is all their child will eat. “That’s exactly the problem,” I think to myself. They are addicted to the gluten (and dairy).

Gluten effects are not limited to the brain. Another way that gluten can affect the body is through gluten-induced autoimmune conditions where the body attacks its own tissues. According to Jane Anderson of About.com, there are currently three identified ways this can manifest. One, celiac disease (CD), where the body attacks the villi of the small intestine drastically affecting absorption of important nutrients which can result in failure to thrive for children. Two, dermatitis herpetiformis, where the body attacks its skin, and three, gluten ataxia, where the body attacks the cerebellum region of the brain (the part responsible for coordination).

Gluten has played a key role in my family’s health and wellness issues. My son, Sammy, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at two and half years old.  You can read my first blog post about the day of his autism diagnosis. Upon Sammy’s diagnosis, I was very open to the idea of diet intervention for my son since I had gone through an elimination diet myself a year earlier removing gluten, dairy and other problematic foods. The diet change resolved a long list of health issues for me including anxiety, depression, asthma and chronic body pain. It also helped me shed 60 unwanted pounds. See my before and after pictures at Eat to Thrive!

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The results of the diet intervention for my son were amazing. He is now considered “recovered” from autism. I am delighted to now see new studies beginning to reveal the link between gluten and autism. A study conducted by the Columbia University Medical Center indicated elevated levels of antibodies to gluten in children with an autism spectrum diagnosis. An article by Newswise stated the following, “Researchers have found elevated antibodies to gluten proteins of wheat in children with autism in comparison to those without autism. The results also indicated an association between the elevated antibodies and the presence of gastrointestinal symptoms in the affected children.” It continues, “Although the mechanisms that cause autism are poorly understood, there is mounting evidence that the immune system plays a role in a subset of patients. In addition, autistic children commonly have gastrointestinal symptoms.” Gastrointestinal symptoms were a key indicator with my son, Sammy. He experienced chronic constipation from birth until the diet change and also had chronic “colic” as an infant. He seemed as though he cried non-stop until around four months old. You can view the full article on the link between gluten and autism. Julie Matthews, author of Nourishing Hope for Autism, also recaps the article along with other great information on food and its effect on our brain.

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Why is that food is affecting our children’s well-being? If you think about it, our eating habits and our food sourcing and manufacturing has changed drastically in the past 50 to 100 years. We now are consuming more refined carbohydrates than ever and our foods are laden with pesticides, synthetic food additives and, at the minimum, are overly processed. Jamie Oliver reports our kids are, “overweight and malnourished from a diet of processed foods.” According to the Feingold organization, studies and clinical experience link poor nutrition with both behavioral and health problems including attention, focus, bed-wetting and sleep issues, just to name a few. Many studies have proven that food additives can cause serious learning, behavior and health effects on certain people with sensitivities.

It does not seem like a coincidence to me that in the same amount of time that our food chain has changed so drastically, problems such as childhood obesity, diabetes, ADHD, ADD, PDD, OCD, developmental delays, autism, asthma, ear infections, depression, violent behavior and bipolar disorders have increase drastically. Changing Sammy’s diet changed the course of his life. But it not only helped his autism, it helped a long list of other problems such as sleep issues, temper tantrums, melt downs, bedwetting, dark circles under the eye, skin issues including eczema, asthma, allergies, and excessive viruses. He very seldom gets sick anymore and has experienced only one ear infection that we cured with homeopathic remedies. I am grateful to say, he’s never had an antibiotic.

Identifying foods that can be causing havoc on your or your child’s health and neurological wellness is imperative. If you think gluten or other foods such as dairy could be a problem for your child, try taking it out for 4-6 weeks and note any changes in behavior and/or health. Please be aware that your child could suffer withdrawal symptoms for 3-4 days or longer. Both gluten and dairy are addictive to the body. It may get worse before it gets better. Changing our diet, changed our lives. It was a challenging adjustment but it is so worth it. Our kids deserve the best fighting chance for a healthy, happy and productive life and it all begins by what we feed them.

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Here is one of Sammy’s favorite gluten-free treats:

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Chicken Tenders

(Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Egg-Free option, Soy-Free)

4 Organic boneless, skinless chicken tenders, cut into bite size pieces

4 eggs or egg replacer equivalent, beaten

1 cup gluten-free flour

1 medium bag organic potato chips, ground into fine crumbs

1/2 -1 tsp  paprika

1/2 – 1 tsp sea salt

1/4 – 1/2 tsp ground black pepper

¼-1/2 tsp garlic salt

1/8-1/4 tsp chili powder (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Blend flour with seasonings and put into shallow bowl.
  3. Prepare egg or egg replacer in another shallow bowl.
  4. Crush potato chips and put into yet another shallow bowl.
  5. Line the three shallow bowls side by side for dipping.
  6. Dip chicken pieces into flour mixture.
  7. Dip floured chicken into egg mixture.
  8. Dip into crushed potato chips, cover as thoroughly as possible.
  9. Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper for easy clean up.
  10. Bake for ten minutes and then turn over and bake another ten or until chicken reaches 170 degrees.
  11. These can be frozen and reheated.

The chicken tenders can also be fried in oil. Use oil with a high smoking point (coconut, rice bran or tea seed oil).

Follow my blog at thrivinggf.com to get weekly updates on gluten-free living including recipes. You can download my freeThriving Gluten-free Guide.

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