Autism is a brain development disorder that appears early in life, most often manifesting itself by the age of three years. In children with the condition the brain processes information differently, which can lead to stressful social situations. It affects most areas of a child’s social and psychological development and continues throughout adulthood.
Overcoming the difficulties autism can bring, can be made easier by understanding how to manage lifestyle factors. Correct nutrition is also hugely important; providing tailored nutrition that helps to support the brain can help to overcome difficulties a child may face, which may otherwise be overwhelming.
Autism is characterised by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted interests and repetitive behaviour. Those with autism may also have increased sensitivity to sounds and smells. The autism spectrum disorders (ASD) also include related conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome, which have fewer signs and symptoms.
The cause of autism is generally not known but is thought to encompass a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is a considerable amount of evidence that genetics may play a part, since ASDs often seem to run in families.
The environmental factors believed to play a part in its development are numerous and include viral exposure in the womb, drugs used in pregnancy and/or childbirth, environmental toxins, mercury poisoning, vaccines (MMR) and food intolerances or allergies.
It is likely to be a combination of factors rather than one individual cause that leads to the development of ASD. Diet does not appear to cause autism, however nutrient deficiencies from lack of adequate nutrition in the diet may aggravate symptoms of autism further.
Living with autism can certainly be made easier for both family members and the individual by introducing routine and planned activities. Spontaneous events can really upset and unnerve someone with autism, so keep this in mind when planning activities throughout the week. With strong sensitivities to sounds, light and smell, also consider avoiding certain situations with may overload senses, such as rush hour on public transport or a busy time in a supermarket.
Visual support used in teaching practises can help autistic children to learn if they are finding language particularly difficult. Learning through shapes, colours and textures is far less stressful for someone with autism, and may help them to open up to new ideas.
There are many practises which can help to provide a less stressful environment and living routine for those with autism. You simply need to find out what works best for you and your family.
Diet can make a considerable difference to symptoms and the behaviour of someone with autism. This is because the brain requires high levels of certain nutrients to function properly.
Omega-3 long-chain fatty acids have a direct effect on various functions in the brain and play a crucial role in learning, memory and behaviour. It is therefore a good idea to make sure your child gets enough of these essential fats in his or her diet.
Children with autism generally have lower levels of omega-3 long-chain fatty acids when compared with other children, possibly because of an inability to convert what are known as short-chain essential fatty acids (plant source omega-3 fats) to long-chain fatty acids (fish source omega-3 fats). Autism, like dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyspraxia, is part of a group of neurodevelopmental disorders which are all associated with problems in the metabolism of long-chain fatty acids.
Consequently, those with autism may not properly convert plant based omega-3 fatty acids from nuts and seeds for example, to the brain-beneficial long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. To overcome this problem, oily fish providing a good source of omega-3 EPA will provide the required fatty acids for the brain. These include salmon, herring, anchovies and/or mackerel. It is still healthy to include nuts and seeds in your child’s diet as they are rich in several other vitamins, however do keep in mind that the fats required for brain health come from the long-chain fatty acids found in fish. (If your heart sinks at the prospect of convincing a reluctant five-year-old to tuck into his tuna, an omega-3 supplement may provide a useful alternative: see ‘Supplements’)
Protein is important as it helps to support the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which are required for motivation, memory and learning. Those with autism often have low production of these neurotransmitters and so a diet rich in protein is also recommended.
Protein-rich foods include meat, fish, eggs, yoghurt, cheese, pulses, nuts and seeds. Aim to have protein with each meal and with each snack.
Vitamins and minerals
When it comes to brain health, zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 are among the most important vitamins and minerals to consider. They are required for the metabolism of fatty acids (helping the conversion of different fats in the body) and they also support the production of neurotransmitters. Deficiencies in these specific vitamins and minerals are very common, so make sure you include plenty of foods rich in these nutrients. Zinc is found in meat such as beef and lamb, wheat germ, spinach, nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are also a good source of magnesium, as are dark green leafy vegetables and pulses. Vitamin B6 can be found in fish, nuts and seeds. Including these foods on a regular basis should help to support the enzymes needed for optimal brain health.
It is common for children with autism to complain about digestive upset such as cramping and bloating. If this is the case, your child may have an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. Bloating can occur when undigested food in the gut passes through the intestinal wall, causing an immune reaction. Beneficial bacteria help to strengthen the gut wall, support the digestion of food and also promote a healthy immune system. These so-called ‘friendly’ bacteria can be found in live yoghurts and also in supplement form. Some foods called prebiotics help to feed the beneficial bacteria allowing them to multiply, and can therefore further help to balance healthy bacteria levels. Prebiotic foods include bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic and artichoke. Avoid refined sugar however as this can increase levels of the pathogenic (bad) bacteria in the gut, which can exacerbate bloating and discomfort.
Foods to limit
Nutrient dense foods that optimise brain function should be your priority however some foods may aggravate symptoms, so you should try to keep these to a minimum.
Refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white bread can cause havoc for brain health as the fast release of glucose into the blood stream from these types of foods causes blood sugar levels to peak very quickly, and then following the release of insulin, results in low blood sugar. This variation in blood sugar levels can increase stress hormones in the body and alter mood by varying glucose supply to the brain. A high intake of refined carbohydrates is also associated with anxiety and sleep disturbances.
Slower releasing carbohydrates containing fibre and other vitamins and minerals such as fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, will have a much better effect on blood sugar levels and brain health.
Specific allergies or intolerances to foods including gluten and dairy products may also lead to digestive problems in children with autism. Gluten is a protein found in grains wheat, barley and rye. Undigested gluten and casein (found in milk) can sometimes pass the gut blood barrier resulting in a release of opioid peptides which can lead to behavioural and emotional changes, therefore optimising digestion to prevent this, is key.
For children who have sensitivities to certain foods, it may also be wise to avoid artificial food additives such as food colour additives. Children who are prone to allergies are generally more sensitive to these kinds of artificial ingredients, so opt for fresh foods to avoid these ingredients.
Omega-3 EPA fish oil
Fish is king when it comes to supporting brain health, but most children will wrinkle their noses at the thought of a fish supper, in which case a good-quality fish oil supplement can prove a very useful ally! Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are in fact the most important to consider when it comes to autism and numerous clinical trials have consistently shown that oils rish in the omega-3 fat EPA improves learning, behaviour and mood. Daily supplementation with EPA can also result in improvements in overall health, cognition, sleep patterns, social interactions, eye contact and anxiety.
Omega-3 EPA provides these wonderful health benefits by several mechanisms. Firstly, omega-3 EPA is required for proper functioning of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which have an effect on attention and concentration. Low omega-3 levels are associated with low levels of dopamine, therefore supplementing with high dose EPA alongside eating fish, may significantly support levels of these important neurotransmitters.
Omega-3 EPA also has beneficial properties by helping to control inflammation in the body. EPA produces anti-inflammatory hormone-like substances in the body which are particularly important for brain health, as inflammation can cause damage to cells. High levels of certain omega-6 fatty acids can actually increase inflammation (omega-6 is typically found in vegetable oils such as corn oil), however when balanced with sufficient omega-3 EPA, this inflammation can be controlled. A specific type of omega-6 fatty acid called GLA sourced from evening primrose oil in combination with omega-3 EPA has actually shown to work together to effectively reduce inflammation. A supplement combining omega-3 EPA and omega-6 GLA is therefore a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Omega-3 EPA or DHA?
EPA and DHA are two different types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, both of which offer health benefits. Recent evidence has highlighted they have varying roles in brain function. As DHA is abundant in the structure of the brain, it was initially thought that DHA was the omega-3 with most importance for brain health; however it is now believed that EPA is the omega-3 of greater value in terms of the support it offers in the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. DHA is still an important omega-3 fat for brain structure, which is why it is required during pregnancy and breast feeding. However the higher the ratio of EPA to DHA, the more effective the supplement becomes for brain function. Whilst children should be encouraged to eat oily fish at least once a week, taking an additional pure EPA supplement appears to confer benefits that outweigh EPA and DHA combinations. Defining the importance of omega-3 EPA has helped to clarify why many trials supplementing with both EPA and DHA have generated disappointing results in terms of beneficial effects on brain health. Combining omega-3 EPA with omega-6 GLA however has shown to further enhance the anti -inflammatory effects and therefore is favoured over a standard fish oil supplement. It must also be noted that the concentration of the active ingredient omega-3 EPA varies in different supplements. Standard fish oil provides only 18% EPA, whereas a concentrated supplement should provide at least 70%, a significant difference in the dose provided and therefore in the potential outcome offered!
Fatty acid deficiencies
Omega-3 EPA and omega-6 GLA deficiencies are common amongst children with autism, but the reason for this is not always as simple as a low dietary intake. Enzymes required to convert fatty acids may be lacking or not working efficiently, therefore plant based omega-3 fatty acids may not be converted to EPA in the body. To support the functioning of the enzymes required to metabolise fatty acids, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6 are required. If a child has low levels of these nutrients, fatty acid conversion may be compromised. Supplementing these vitamins and minerals may therefore offer extra support for optimal brain function in those who may not be getting high enough fatty acid conversion. Magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6 are also all required for neurotransmitter production, so really are especially important when it comes to brain health.
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