Food for thought: nutrition and special needs


Elizabeth Dobak, Contributing Writer


Recent studies suggest that nutrition and diet can significantly influence the ability of people who have special needs to utilize their capabilities. These studies have shown, in particular that people who have autism have experienced tremendous progress in facilitating cognitive function, mood, behavior and digestion through nutrition.

Autism is a complex biological disorder with no established single cause, although genetic and environmental factors are implicated. Symptoms of autism include difficulties with speech, abnormalities of posture or gesture, difficulty in understanding the feelings of others, sensory misperceptions, and behavioral abnormalities such as compulsive or obsessive behavior and ritualistic movements. Fortunately, there is growing evidence to suggest that nutritional therapy can lead to significant improvements in these symptoms.

One of the most significant contributing factors to the exhibition of autistic symptoms are undesirable foods and chemicals that reach the brain through the bloodstream due to faulty digestion and absorption. Foods that are rich in probiotics can help to restore the balance of gastrointestinal bacteria. This can help to heal the digestive tract and promote normal absorption.

Improved absorption and digestion can help to protect against the effects of the two foods that are most commonly linked to aggravating the symptoms of autism: wheat and dairy. The specific proteins that wheat and dairy contain are difficult to digest. Peptides, which are fragments of these proteins, can have a tremendous impact on the function of the brain. This is because peptides can mimic the body’s own natural opioids, such as endorphins, and act directly in the brain. They can also disable the enzymes that break down these naturally occurring compounds.

It is essential to balance the blood sugar levels in people who have autism because abnormal glucose metabolism is common among them, especially in autistic children who exhibit signs of hyperactivity. If glucose levels in the blood are allowed to spike and plunge arbitrarily, wild fluctuations can be triggered in levels of activity, concentration, focus and behavior.

Dr. Gordon Bell at the University of Stirling has conducted research that has shown that some autistic children have an enzymatic defect in which essential fats are removed from brain cell membranes more quickly than they should be. People with autism usually need a higher intake of essential fats in their diet or need a supplement of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which can slow the defective enzyme and can improve their behavior, mood, imagination, spontaneous speech, sleep patterns and focus.

Pediatrician Mary Megson believes that many autistic children are deficient in vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol. Vitamin A is essential for vision and for building healthy cells in the gut and brain. Animal-derived retinol and natural vitamin A12 can protect the integrity of the digestive tract, improve the development of the brain, and enhance vision by improving three-dimensional perception and facial expression recognition. Faulty perception of three-dimensional objects and facial expression recognition are two of the most difficult capabilities for a person with autism to utilize.

With such encouraging progress being made in facilitating the utilization of capabilities through diet and nutrition, hopes soar for the future improvement of conditions like autism.


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