Nutritional Treatments and Autism: Too Little Research but…Here’s Some of What We Currently Know

Well – I am feeling somewhat overwhelmed!  A brief internet search yesterday morning, in which I was looking for new and interesting research, led me to 10 papers that I want to read and write about for you.  Considering that it takes quite a while to make my way through scientific papers…I have my work cut out for me the next couple of weeks!  On the bright side, lots of interesting stuff for you to read about.

So for today, I’ve settled on a general review of nutritional approaches to treating autism (ASD).[i]  I’ve written many times before (here and here, for example) about biome alterations in the population and am, of course, always on the look out for “things you can do now” papers to treat this.  While far from comprehensive, there were enough items of interest in it to warrant a mention in my blog.

  1. A fact I did not know:  the central nervous systems of boys are “…innately more sensitive to environmental factors than those of females,” which may account for the greater number of boys affected with ASD than girls.  For example, two sex-dependent sensitivities include mycotoxins (toxins from fungi produced by Candida) and casomorphines (undigested peptides (short strings of amino acids) found in dairy products).
  2. Inflammation in the intestines of those with autism has been well documented, and can lead to many nutritional deficiencies. In fact, more than half of those with ASD have been found to have vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as abnormally low levels of amino acids (formed by the digestion of protein) and omega 3s.  “Multivitamin/mineral supplements have been reported to decrease cognitive, sleep, and GI problems.”
  3. There is some evidence that a ketogenic diet, which is high in fat but very low in carbohydrates, with adequate protein, can improve autistic behaviors. Same for the casein/gluten-free diets.  However, this latter is still controversial, as many studies have shown it does not help.  As always though, when I read papers like this, I wonder what other therapies are the parents doing, what they are really feeding their child, etc.  For example, the casein/gluten-free diet often leads to an excess consumption of carbohydrates.  After all, gluten-free cookies, chips, etc. are all fine on the diet and many of the children seem to crave carbs.  We know that those with ASD have carbohydrate-digestion issues (I’ve written about this before here) and also, carbohydrate-metabolism/mitochondrial issues.  So, I still keep an open mind.  (These authors do refer to the data collected by the Autism Research Institute on over 27,000 parents’ reports of how various therapies have affected their children.   At this point, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet is ranked highest in terms of percentage of parents who report it helping – 71%.  In my personal experience, that number is closer to 90%.  Again, though, it does depend on doing the diet right, making sure all nutritional needs are met, and so forth.)
  4. Curcumin: A 4 week long study done on mice in 2015, with 3 different doses of curcumin (50 mg, 100 mg, or 200 mg per kg of body weight) found that the spice could “…restore neurological, behavioral, biochemical and molecular changes related to the ASD phenotype…in a dose dependent manner.”  (The problem with curcumin is it is very poorly absorbed from the gut – huge doses are needed.  However, there is research going on now on ways to improve its bio-availability, including combining it with phospholipids (a kind of fat).)
  5. Probiotics: You all know by now that many studies have confirmed bacterial microbiome alterations in the ASD population.  You also know, if you regularly read my blog, that multiple studies have been done showing that probiotics (and fecal transplant) have both been used successfully to improve the quality of the gut bacteria and subsequently, improve the symptoms of autism.  While research remains “insufficient,” as this author says, there is enough to justify a trial of probiotics.  Of course though, as I have pointed out in this post, it is a good idea to first reduce inflammation in the body – via diet, targeted supplements, etc. – before starting probiotics as they can cause problems otherwise.  There are a couple of studies mentioned in this paper worth reporting to you.  Firstly, 22 children with autism were put on a sugar-free diet and Lactobacillus acidophilus twice a day for two months:  “…significant improvements were observed in the major behavioral domains, especially in the ability to concentrate and the ability to follow instructions.”    A second study mentioned in this paper was randomized, double-blind, controlled.  The children were put on Lactobacillus plantarum for 6 weeks, and “…improvements in destructive and antisocial behavior, as well as in anxiety and communication problems, was observed…”
  6. Food additives:  problematic in children with ASD.  (Well – problematic in everyone really, if you ask me!)
  7. Camel milk: has many beneficial properties.  One randomized study in 60 children with autism showed that 500 ml of camel milk over 2 weeks “…led to significant improvements in the behavior of children with ASD.”

The authors’ conclusion:  “It is reported than in individuals with ASD, while the gluten-free casein-free and KDs [ketogenic diets], camel milk, curcumin, probiotics, and fermentable foods can play a role in alleviating ASD symptoms, the consumption of sugar, additives, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, inorganic processed foods, and difficult-to-digest starches may aggravate symptoms.”

Helpful information to know but as I mentioned above, as far as I’m concerned it’s incomplete.  There are simply not enough studies done to really draw any conclusions, even about those treatments they mention, let alone therapies like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which anecdotally is unbelievably effective…but mostly untested in proper clinical trials.


[i] Cekici, H and Sanlier, N. Current nutritional approaches in managing autism spectrum disorder: a review. Nutritional Neuorscience. 2019;22(3):145-155.

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