Mother discovers the effects of gluten on brain function

Saving Sammy - Change Your Diet Change Your LifeSix years ago “gluten” was yet to be a regular part of my vocabulary.

I didn’t even know the meaning of the word.

I also knew very little about the brain disorder, autism.

Today, they are an intricate part of my everyday life.

They are the main threads that weave the tapestry of my day.

There are many days I think I know way more about intestinal permeability (AKA leaky gut), gliadorphin and casomorphin than I’d like to but I am thankful I do because this knowledge transformed my life and changed the course of my son’s.

Six years ago. I was obese, depressed, anxious, suffering with insomnia, night terrors, asthma, heightened allergies, digestive issues (including heartburn, indigestion, gas, bloating and inconsistent bowel movements), various skin issues, chronic body pain (I had been diagnosed with arthritis) and the list goes on.

I knew something needed to change. I had been prescribed anti-depressant and anxiety medications as well as a mild tranquilizer at one time for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I also took allergy and asthma medications on a daily basis and popped ibuprofen like candy.

One day while reading a magazine, I ran across an article written by Dr. Mark Hyman on an elimination diet. The fact that I had all the symptoms listed in the ad caught my attention and I decided to order his book, The Ultra Simple Diet. I’m not sure what came over me but I read the book overnight and jumped feet first into this new lifestyle.

What happened next was transformational.

Change your diet…change your life

An elimination diet consists of removing potentially inflammatory foods from one’s diet. I started with the top five: gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, almost all process foods, and chemicals (pesticides, preservatives, etc.). I ate only organic fruits and vegetables, lean/clean protein and some non-gluten grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and amaranth. This new way of eating changed my life.

I not only lost over 60 pounds (which was a side benefit), I also lost depression, anxiety and the long list of other health issues mentioned earlier. I am proud to say that I am now medication free. It was an AMAZING difference! Little did I know that this dramatic transformation was preparing me for what lie ahead….my son’s autism diagnosis.

Autism and Diet

A year after my diet transition, my youngest child, Sammy, two and half at the time, was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS), a form of high functioning autism. He was speech delayed possessing only twenty words that he used one at a time. According to the psychologist who diagnosed him, this put him at the level of a one and half year old. He had many other autistic tendencies but also had a couple of other issues that I thought, at the time, were unrelated.

First, he was chronically constipated since birth. At one point when he was two months old, his bowels did not move for over 20 days. I knew his constipation was not normal but was unsure of what to do about it. Another issue was his growth rate. At the time of diagnosis, he was only in the 10th percentile on the growth chart in comparison to his peers. He was born weighing eight pounds, ten ounces (which placed him over the 50th percentile) so I thought it was strange that his growth pattern seemed a little slow.

The pediatrician did not seem concerned though. It would become clear to me later how all these issues were interrelated.

Through what I call “divine intervention” two books, both written by other autism parents, found their way to me. Both families had implemented what is called in the autism world, a “GFCF diet.” The “G” in GFCF is for gluten and “C” is for casein or milk protein so “GFCF” means gluten and dairy-free. When I realized that GFCF pertained to my new diet, it was a quick decision for me to put Sammy on the diet. I did not tell anyone of my decision. The autism department of Kaiser Permanente did not react very positively to my inquiry about diet intervention and my own family had been referring to me over the past year as a “hippy” because I was now eating brown rice and quinoa. I became nervous that my family would try to stop me from implementing the diet so I did it without telling anyone. It was easy. I encouraged Sammy to eat along with me and he transitioned beautifully. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

Healing from autism

Sammy’s first response to the diet was in his bowels. He started having regular bowel movements for the first time in his life. I jokily tell people, “the more he pooped, the more he spoke.” Within weeks of the diet change his vocabulary exploded and he started putting two words together for the first time.

The improvement in his speech was so dramatic that my husband remarked that he noticed Sammy was “speaking all of a sudden” (big smile from me). “I know,” I said and then told him of the diet change. From that moment on, my husband was supportive of any other diet changes I decided to implement.

Our son was literally transforming before our eyes.

Between the diet change and therapy intervention, our son appeared recovered within 6-12 months of the diagnosis. It wasn’t until this past year that he received his next formal evaluation. In January of this year, a school specialist reevaluated our son and “graduated” him from his special education plan. In short, the school evaluator observed no visible signs of autism or need for special assistance.

Gluten, Dairy and Brain Function

Many people ask why gluten and dairy are an issue for us and why it manifested so differently in each of our bodies. My short answer is “genetics, digestion and inflammation.” Each of us possess our own genetic fingerprint. Among family members we share some of the same genetic traits but not all. Apparently for us, we share the same genetic predisposition for gluten sensitivity and probably for other foods such as dairy.

How that sensitivity manifested in our body was somewhat different. For me, depression, anxiety (both brain function issues), asthma, allergies and arthritis run on both sides my family. For my son, autism runs in his father’s family. His paternal uncle has the exact same diagnosis. For Sammy, the brain dysfunction expressed as autism, where for me, it manifested as depression and other similar issues such as anxiety.

Apparently, there is a correlation between autism and depression within families. Two different studies have linked both depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the mothers of children with autism.

Julie Matthews, CNC, an autism nutritional specialist, stated in her book, Nourishing Hope for Autism, “This intrigues me (the link between depression and autism), as many families I work with have a history of depression, especially mothers. While I have not done a formal study, in my practice, a significant number of mothers with children on the spectrum have told me about their depression. There was a period of time where around 70% of mothers, I worked with had significant depression, including some on antidepressants.”

How does gluten and dairy affect brain function? In people with a specific genetic disposition, gluten and dairy (as well as other foods) can cause increased intestinal permeability allowing undigested gluten and dairy to pass through into the blood stream and then have an opiate or narcotic effect on the brain. This “opiate effect” can leave the person feeling “spaced out,” a common symptom of autism and depression. Remember Sammy’s constipation issues? One of the hallmark side effects of opiates is constipation.

K.L. Reichelt, an MD (from the Pediatric Research Institute) who researches the impact of gluten intolerance on certain individuals with developmental delays, conducted a study where abnormal quantities of urinary polypeptides (undigested proteins) were found in many children with autism.

When placed on a gluten and dairy free diet, these levels improved dramatically. In the book, Dangerous Grains, the authors report that, “For some time now, measurements of urinary peptides have revealed that autistic, schizophrenic, and depressed patients excrete large quantities of peptides that can function as neurotransmitters. Such increases may be either a direct or an indirect result of leakage of exorphins into the bloodstream.” Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body.

The research above along with other studies has established a link between gluten consumption and mental illnesses, behavioral issues (ADHD) and various learning disabilities. Dr. Tom O’Bryan, DC, CCN, DACBN, illustrated it beautifully at a gluten sensitivity conference when he walked to the light dimmer in the room, turned the lights down and said, “Your brain on gluten.” He then turned the lights up and said, “Your brain off gluten.” It was a powerful visual. Gluten can actually “dim” or alter brain function.

Remove Gluten, Heal the Brain

Dr. Jerry Kartzinel states in Healing and Preventing Autism that, “We have found that gluten and dairy seem to affect a lot of our children with autism and thus we see a lot of children respond terrifically when these are removed from the diet.

The goal behind changing diets is to remove chemicals, toxins, and potential neurotransmitters, which are liberated when foods are broken down (in the process of digestion).

These substances could be toxic for the brain and cause behavioral trouble in kids who are sensitive to them – whether it is gluten, dairy, phenols (which are chemicals found in food), salicylates (found in foods), rice, corn, or others…When we change their diet, 80 percent of the kids with autism seem to respond.”

I think it’s important for people to understand that it was more than just removing gluten (and dairy) that facilitated our healing. When I cleaned up our diets, I removed all potentially inflammatory foods as well as anything that was unnatural and posed a potential threat such as processed foods, genetically modified foods, chemical and additives. I believe it was this combination that resulted in such dramatic healing.

Not only did Sammy’s autistic symptoms get better, many of his health issues began to resolve including asthma, chronic respiratory illnesses, digestive stress, skin rashes, excessive bruising and restless sleep. As I mentioned earlier, Sammy at the time of diagnosis was in the 10th percentile in comparison to the height and weight of his peers. In less than a year on the new diet, Sammy was in the 50th percentile.

Clearly his body had been in a chronic state of inflammation caused by food intolerances and was not thriving. It was as though we had waved a “magic wand” with the new diet and our son began rapidly healing. Clearly, Sammy’s autism was just one of many symptoms caused by chronic inflammation in his body.

Sammy’s dramatic healing was no surprise to me because I had experienced similar healing through my own diet intervention the previous year.

It seems to me the sequence of these events was orchestrated so that I could clearly understand the potential benefit this diet could provide for my son.

While this has been a wild ride, I am thankful to have connected the dots between food, brain function and our overall wellbeing.

Through this journey I have come to believe that there is nothing more important in this day that what we choose to put at the end of our fork.


Kim RiceKim Rice is a Wellness Coach and mother of three children in Pleasanton, California, writing about topics such as autism, gluten and dairy free living, depression, diet and life transformation. She earned her BA degree in Journalism and Public Relations from the University of Detroit Mercy and has over 20 years of corporate writing and marketing experience.

  • Alison Golden

    We had a very similar experience with our son. It makes me happy every day that we were able to recover him. Great job, Mom!

    • Kim Rice

      Thanks, Alison! I am so glad that you too figured out. Warrior moms we are!!

  • Annngeo

    I have diagnosed MS (20 years), and was diagnosed with Celiac Disease 18 months ago. A gluten-free diet has made a huge difference to me. We already kept a largely organic, low dairy, and are on the Wahl’s Diet (great for MS). Gluten can be a serious poison to some, but to many a gluten free diet is an enhancement (my wife as an example). Clearer thinking, no depression, and losing weigh are typical examples.

    • Kim Rice

      I’m not familiar with the Wahl’s Diet. What does it involve?

  • Dana James Auberg

    My wife has Celiac Disease and we have an autistic son. We tried him gluten free for over a year, and nothing changed with him. Although he’s an Aspie, so not sure if that makes a difference.

    • Kim Rice

      Hi Dana,

      It’s awesome that you gave it a try and I’m sorry you did not see any results.
      Autism (which is a classification of behaviors caused by brain dysfunction) can
      be caused by a collection of metabolic disturbances. It is key to explore all
      possible disturbances. Of course everyone is unique so it can be complex but
      here are some of the issues that need to be explored:

      1) ALL food sensitivities. My son’s sensitivities include much more than
      gluten. They are (in order of importance) color dyes, sugar, gluten, soy, dairy
      and eggs (my list of sensitivities is even longer). Many parents don’t do a
      FULL elimination diet with their children and therefore don’t good results. The
      means eating lean/clean protein, lots of nutrient dense veggies, some fruits,
      healthy fats and non-gluten grains. Processed foods need to be eliminated
      during the healing phase;

      2) Healing a leaky gut which includes addressing possible parasites, candida,
      viruses and bacterial overgrowth (which my son struggles with) and other gut
      issues. Healing the gut is imperative. This drives many other digestive issues
      that can affect brain function;

      3) Nutritional deficiencies and imbalances. These are very common with people
      on the spectrum and can be caused by (again) leaky gut;

      4) Trying different diets such as GAPS, Feingold, Specific Carbohydrate Diet
      (SCD), the Yeast Diet, FODMAPS diet, Failsafe diet and the Low Oxalate diet
      (LOD). Sometimes combining different diets are necessary to help a child. My
      son does really well on his current diet combined with Feingold but I find it
      really hard to manage so we do lite Feingold diet (low salicylates);

      5) Was the diet implemented 100% and for how long? Some people are VERY
      sensitive to gluten (or other foods) and cannot take any tiny amount of it in
      their diet. I have found in my experience that many people don’t fully
      understand all the places gluten can lurk. I had one mother in my GF support
      group that had to change her body products to GF because she suspected that her
      child was getting glutened when kissing her or coming in contact with her skin.
      Contact with any gluten at all would make his hair fall out. He, at one point,
      had lost almost all his hair. By implementing an elimination diet and cleaning
      it up 100%, she was able to heal his body enough that his hair came back. He is
      a person who cannot even tolerate GF certified foods. GF certified foods still
      have a small amount of gluten in them (usually 10ppm or lower). In addition, it
      can take 6-12 months for the gut to fully heal.

      6) Minimizing processed foods. This brings me back to one of the last points in
      number five. GF certified foods still have 10ppm or less of gluten. The new
      labeling law will allow 20ppm of gluten in a product labeled “gluten
      free.” In my experience as a health coach and support group leader, many
      gluten sensitive people do better without any processed foods at all. In
      addition, there are many additives and other ingredients in the processed foods
      that can cause issues for various reasons (cross reactive issues and other
      sensitivities such as yeast extract found in many GF breads);

      7) Detoxification. My son was found to have low glutathione levels which
      is common in boys and those on the spectrum. Glutathione is the army in
      our body that fights toxicity. This means his body cannot detox as efficiently
      as others. Therefore, I have to protect his body as much as possible. This
      means cleaning up his world. I do this by: filtering his bath and drinking
      water, using non-toxic body and house cleaning products, filtering the air in
      our home, using organic pajamas only (most people especially kids spend a good
      portion of their day in PJ’s due 8-12 hour sleep cycles – children’s PJ’s by
      law contain flame retardants), refusing to spray for bugs, minimizing carpet
      cleaning and using non-toxic carpet cleaners, minimizing dry cleaning and using
      a non-toxic dry cleaner when it’s necessary, feeding our family organic foods,
      using only non-toxic cookware and food storage-ware (all glass or stainless
      steel), minimizing vaccinations (my son has not been vaccinated since his
      diagnosis) and other medications (I treat fevers and the one ear infections he
      had with homeopathic remedies).

      There is probably more that I am forgetting but you get the picture. I did
      MUCH MORE than just clean up his diet. Some have asked me what I feel played
      the biggest role in his healing and quite frankly, I don’t know. I know that
      food was huge for him but I would do everything exactly the same over again to
      have the results I have today. I strongly recommend to any parent with a child
      on the spectrum to read Julie Matthew’s book, Nourishing Hope for Autism. It’s
      amazing. Much luck to you and your precious child.

      • C.K.

        That is by far the best response to so many replies “we removed gluten and saw no change”. It’s SO much more, so much…. And you said it right there :-)

        • Andrew Cordova

          Kim knows her stuff.

        • Kim Rice

          Thanks, CK!

    • Mary Cifers

      I would also suggest to look into a chiropractic specialist…I know this sounds strange…but 80% of people with autism/adhd/sensory disorder have some type of nervous system disorder…mostly causing them to be stuck in flight or fight(what we call endurance) Anyway…there is much more to it than that but I would highly recommend it. I have s son that has sensory processing disorder and it has made a big difference!

  • Maggie Macleod

    My daughter suffers from gluten induced atypical seizures… its a horrid thing to watch … it affects the behaviour part of her brain and it hits 15 minutes after she ingests gluten… her eyes dilate and she turns into a hell child kicking and screaming, rocking, banging her head, chewing and biting like a feral animal. This can last for ages. She looks through you. She self harms, trys to claw her eyes out and lashes at people around her. She has tried throwing herself out of a moving car and off balconies.

    Then after bouncing or rocking she crawls under something to hide with her eyes staring blinking rhythmically she is and unresponsive or drops instantly unconscious in my arm, flops before jolting awake crying… she doesn’t remember afterwards what happened.. one drop of gluten does this to her… she also eats and eats and eats, unable to stop saying she is hungry all the time.

    Because of gut leakage her breath stinks and so does her wind, pain in the tummy and the runs… it’s to do with Ghrelin a hormone (she has ptsd) and the trauma she goes through… shes nine but reverts back to a toddler after a seizure with a cuddle toy she chews and she then crawls around because she can’t stand on her legs which are in pain…

    the one thing that helps her is probiotics…with lactaleeze (lactase) tabs….. if i run out it causes a
    seizure because so many food have gluten hidden in them.. eggs because the chicken has fed on wheat for example…

    I also have two autistic children but she is not autistic like her brother and sister… gluten is evil..

    • Kim Rice

      Hi Maggie
      I’m sorry to hear this about your daughter. I know several parents that saw great results with seizures after removing gluten. Kudos to you for being aware of this.

    • Carol Rosbrook

      As a child I had many symptoms your daughter has! I have a thyroid problem and it recommends a Gluten free diet and also to cut out dairy products especially with vegetable oil in them ! I have felt a lot better for doing this and my thinking and learning have much improved now in my early 50′s, Wish I could live my life all over again!!! Have been on the diet for 8 weeks and have lost 9/10 Ibs and feel a lot better for it!!! I am glad that your daughter has been able to go on this diet at such a young age and wish you all the luck with the diet , just wish it had been advised/recommended when I was her age! Lived in a fog all my life and with painful knees!!! I used to rock but parents just thought it was a habit I had.

  • Misty Garcia

    What a great article, thank you for sharing. I had some of the same health issues you had, my whole life. In Oct. 2008 I had back surgery, afterwards I started to feel so incredibly tired all the time. The doctor found that my iron and Vitamin D levels were off the chart low. I started taking supplements but it barley helped. I was also seeing an acupuncturists for my continued back pain, one day she suggested that I eliminate gluten from my diet for 2 weeks to see if it helped my back pain, 2 weeks later my back pain was still there but what was gone was my headaches, fatigue, stomach issues and I had lost 15 lbs.
    I started researching gluten, I read anything and everything I could find on it. I came across an article about how gluten affects children with ADD/ADHD and Autism. I am a preschool teacher so this was very helpful. I am also a mother and my son 3 at the time, was very hyper active, aggressive, screamed and yelled all the time, would try to hit me and you could not hold his attention for more than a second. So, after a year of being gluten free and learning everything I could I decided to eliminate gluten from his diet. The change was like night and day! He almost instantly calmed down, stopped screaming at me, was able to focus longer, it was amazing. Needless to say we have been gluten free since, 8 yrs for me and 7yrs for my son.
    I wish more parents knew about the effects gluten has on a child’s brain and body. I am always talking to parents about it and always suggesting it and offer to help. I now have twin grand babies and I’m pretty sure one is high functioning Autistic. I am working hard to convince my daughter to change his diet but, as I often hear from parents, it’s to hard and to expensive. I printed your article and I am going to give it to her, I’m not giving up on this!!