E.A.T: An Italian Mother’s Guide for Healing the Gut and Boosting Brain Power in Autism and Other Disorders
The following program is designed to boost brain power by creating optimum conditions for healing the digestive system and thereby improving the way food gets digested, nutrients absorbed and utilized by the body. I write with confidence having seen for myself the noticeable difference in my son’s behavior and improvement of symptoms commonly associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. As a result, the quality of my son’s life, and therefore our family life, has improved. I believe this program will benefit anyone on the Autism Spectrum as well as those with other neurological or behavioral disorders (Sensory Processing Disorder, PDD-NOS, ADHD, Anxiety Disorders and a variety of learning disabilities).
From the time food enters the mouth until it leaves the body at the other end, the gut wall separates what is ingested from the rest of the body. Normally, a healthy digestive system breaks down the food and only lets simple, small molecules like vitamins, minerals, glucose (our cells main source of energy) and amino acids pass into the bloodstream.
Studies show that many children on the autism spectrum have food sensitivities, due to abnormalities in their digestive and/or immune systems. One of the causes of dysfunctional digestion involves digestive enzymes which our body naturally makes to aid the body in the chemical breakdown of food. If these enzymes are deficient, food is not fully-digested. Incomplete digestion is thought to be a contributing factor in many ailments including flatulence, belching, food allergies, nausea, bad breath, bowel problems, stomach disorders as well as many neurological disorders.
Poor digestion can also occur if the digestive system’s barrier becomes too porous due to constant inflammation. When this is the case, partially digested food can pass from the permeable gastrointestinal tract into the bloodstream and cause an inflammatory response. The immune system recognizes improperly digested foods as foreign and may launch an allergic-type response. Also, the permeable barrier may allow other allergens and toxins to pass into to the body, keeping the immune system on hyper-alert. In alternative medicine, this is commonly known as “leaky gut syndrome”.
The main culprit contributing to leaky gut syndrome is a yeast called Candida (aka Candida Albicans). A healthy human gut contains a large number of naturally occurring bacteria and a few fungal elements. Most of these gut bacteria are beneficial, and help with food digestion, water balance, and limiting the growth of harmful bacteria and yeast.
Studies show that some children on the autism spectrum have low levels of beneficial bacteria, and high levels of harmful bacteria and yeast. The harmful bacteria and yeast produce toxins that can severely affect mental functioning and behavior. Alcohol is just one of many by-products that yeast can produce and is a good example of a yeast toxin that can severely affect brain functioning and behavior.
The Candida yeast favors mucus membranes and will damage them where ever they decide to settle. They can damage the mucosal lining of the digestive tract by making it porous. This intestinal permeability leads to physical and mental challenges as a result of improper digestion as discussed above.
Testing for Candida
While most physicians can test for oral or vaginal yeast infections, they do not commonly test for intestinal yeast infections. However, you should ask your physician because as biomedical treatments evolve, more and more doctors are adding these tests to their practices. Most alternative medicine physicians test for Candida overgrowth with a stool sample. Mothers in my network have had these tests done for their children with a wide variety of results.
In the interest of full disclosure, I personally have not had my son tested specifically for the yeast overgrowth. Based on what I have read, I have come to the conclusion that an imbalance is highly likely to exist and therefore, I have moved forward with a program of restoring a healthy environment in the gut.
The overgrowth of Candida is thought to be brought on by antibiotics, medications, processed foods, increased intake of sugar and poor diet. Some studies suggest that babies who weren’t breastfed long enough to receive key immunity building components are also at risk of Candida imbalance. So think back to when your child was a newborn. How long were they breast-fed? What about frequency of antibiotic use? Did your child go through a phase where they were frequently ill and ended up on antibiotics? What about the kinds of foods your child ingests? Is it predominantly a diet of high sugar and processed foods, the diet that is typical of our culture?
It is postulated that the best way to correct the balance of good bacteria vs. bad bacteria and yeast is with a combination of anti-fungal diet (to reduce the growth of yeast), anti-fungal medications or supplements (to kill off excessive yeast) and probiotics (to replace beneficial bacteria) in addition to converting to a healthier balanced diet consisting of predominately natural foods. Following this program will help reduce inflammation, heal the gut and restore normal digestive function.
Introducing Food Changes to Your Child
While sticking to this program will be of great benefit to your child, it can be challenging to change a child’s routine so it is important to implement the program gradually so as to not overwhelm the child (and yourself!). Do not be focused on being regimented just do the best you can. It is better to slowly implement the changes and notice gradual improvement than to overwhelm yourself with a strict plan and give up.
It is helpful if your child understands why and how making certain changes will help. This will also educate them to make better choices when you are not around. Use language that your child will understand and relate to. Here is more or less how I explained it to my boys:
Some how we have managed to buy a lot of stuff that looks like food but really isn’t. It might taste good, but it isn’t good for our bodies. It confuses our brain so that we can’t think or act in a way that is good for us. We need to get rid of those foods and get food that is better for us. Let me show you an example. See this candy? It tastes good but it says that there is Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5 do you know what that means? It means they add artificial colors to this candy. Artificial means fake. They add fake color to paint the candy that color! That would be like us eating a red or yellow crayon or paint. We would never do that because it is not food! We need to buy better treats that don’t have fake color in them.
If your child is older (ie. teenager), you might consider showing them some of the recent food documentaries that have gained recent popularity: Forks Over Knives, Food Inc., Fat Sick and Nearly Dead, Super-Size me, Fast Food Nation, Processed People, The Future of Food and King Corn.
I would recommend that you watch the documentaries first to see if they are appropriate for your child to view. While these movies offer interesting “food for thought”, they are one-sided and not completely scientifically accurate. However, it will make for good conversation on how to be more mindful about what we ingest. The last thing you want to do is to create anxiety around food. But for some kids, seeing is believing and if someone on “t.v.” said it, it must be true.
Don’t be the Source of the Problem
If you are the grocery shopper for the family, you control what you let in the house. If you buy healthier foods, they will eat healthier foods. You will learn how to wean off of products that are contributing to the problem and transition to products that are going to help your child. Once your child gets used to eating healthier, they will recognize how much better they are feeling and will avoid products they have learned are bad for them.
My son cried when I had him help me clear the cupboard of all food items that had artificial colors and flavors. Among the several pounds of junk food that had been taking up residence in my pantry were some of his favorites. I taught him to read the labels and look for the culprits. He would cry every time he found another treat he would have to give up. Once I bought him replacements for some of his favorites, he was on board with the program. Today, when he is offered a snack at his friend’s house, he asks to read the label and then declines the offer if the treat is not “good for him”. I never thought that would happen but it does because he recognizes he won’t “feel as good” if he eats it!
Plan on gradually implementing the recommendations. But once you have implemented the necessary steps to maintain the program (ie. removed offending foods, stocked up on replacements and supplements), consider setting a goal to be “strict” about the regimen for at least 4 weeks. This will give your child’s body a good amount of time to heal the gut.
Keep in mind that as of the date of this writing, we have been doing this regimen at about 85% “strictness” for over 3 months and the results have been significant.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products and information contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases or, medical problems. It is not intended to replace your doctor’s recommendations. The information is provided for educational purposes only and outlines a plan executed by one person based on her own research. Nutritional benefits may vary from one person to another.
My program is still in the editing phase (which is taking longer that expected), but due to multiple requests, I will be posting each section systematically. Please check back often for updates and additional information. Better yet, subscribe to the blog and I will email you the updates.
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