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21 June 2007


If you are not sure, then please read on to find out what we know about autism, the gut, vaccinations and what food has to do with it. The strongest direct evidence of foods linked to autism involves wheat and dairy, and the specific proteins they contain - namely gluten and casein. These are difficult to digest and, especially if introduced too early in life, may result in an allergy. Fragments of these proteins, called peptides, can mimic chemicals in the brain called endorphins, so they're often referred to as 'exorphins'. These exporphin peptides have damaging opioid-like effects in the brain, leading to the many symptoms we describe as autism. Researchers at the Autism Research Unit at Sunderland University have found increased levels of these peptides in the blood and urine of children with autism [1].

What's Going on in the Gut

To understand how these common foods can be so harmful to sensitive individuals, we need to look at how they get into the body via the gut. Opioid peptides are derived from the incomplete digestion of proteins, particularly food containing gluten and casein. One such peptide, IAG, derived from gluten in wheat, is detected in 80 per cent of autistic patients [2], while another, gliadorphin-7, has been found in very large amounts in 54 per cent of autistic children, but only in very small amounts in just 32 per cent of non-autistic children [3]. So the first problem is the poor digestion of proteins. Zinc and vitamin B6 can help autistic children, and here it is worth noting that these two nutrients are essential for proper stomach acid production and therefore protein digestion. But even then, these partially digested protein fragments shouldn't enter the bloodstream. So how do they? Vitamin A deficiency is certainly one culprit, but there may be more.

A large proportion of parents with autistic children report that their child received repeated or prolonged courses of antibiotic drugs for ear or other respiratory infections during the first year of life, prior to the diagnosis of autism. Broad spectrum antibiotics kill good as well as bad bacteria in the gut, weakening the intestinal membranes. This can lead to what is known as leaky gut syndrome, in which large molecules that shouldn't be absorbed through the gut membrane do get through [4]. Dr Andrew Wakefield, in a now controversial study, published in the Lancet in February 1998, of 60 autistic children with gastrointestinal symptoms, found much greater incidences of intestinal lesions than in non-autistic children with similar digestive problems. Over 90 per cent of autistic children showed clinical evidence of chronic inflammation of the small and large intestine as a result of infection, at levels greater than six times that found in non-autistic children with inflammatory bowel disease [5].

Despite a concerted effort to discredit Wakefield's research, recent studies are confirming the link between autism, digestive problems, immune system abnormalities and the MMR vaccine. Wakefield's own research has shown that, in a group of 15 autistic children versus healthy children, there is clear evidence of immune dysfunction [6]. Three studies have shown measles antibodies in the central nervous system, with the potential to damage both brain and gut. [7;8;9]

So restoring a healthy gut in autistic children is very important. Supplementing digestive enzymes and probiotics is known to produce positive clinical results in autistic children, as these nutrients help heal the digestive tract and restore normal absorption [10]. Improving the healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive tract, which can be helped by taking probiotic supplements, may also help by digesting exorphins in the gut before they can be inappropriately absorbed [11]. The amino acid L-glutamine is especially important in restoring the integrity of the digestive tract. Drinking 5g dissolved in water just before bedtime can help heal the gut.

Cutting Out Wheat and Dairy

Clearly though, removing suspect foods from the diet is key, and there are many anecdotal reports of dramatic improvements from parents who remove casein and gluten from their autistic children's diet [12]. It can take some time for the harmful peptides to be removed from the blood and brain, so results can be slow to emerge. Dr Robert Cade, professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Florida, has observed that as the levels of peptides in the blood decrease, the symptoms of autism decrease. 'If they can be reduced to normal range,' he says, 'most patients either improve dramatically or become completely normal.' But you need to rigidly adhere to a gluten/casein-free diet to accomplish this [13].

The Autism Research Unit at Sunderland University recommend a gradual withdrawal of foods, waiting three weeks after the removal of casein (dairy) before removing gluten (wheat, oats, barley, rye) from the diet. Keep a food diary and note behaviours and symptoms alongside. This can help to identify other problematic foods, which commonly include citrus fruits, chocolate, artificial food colourings, salicylates, eggs, tomatoes, avocados, aubergine, red peppers, soya and corn [14]. Because you need to ensure that these foods are replaced rather than just removed, as well as being fully aware of all those foods that contain gluten and/or casein, this is best done under the guidance of a nutritional therapist.

The MMR Vaccine Debate

The official line is that there's no good evidence of a danger of the MMR vaccine causing autism in children. There's some truth to this, in that Dr Andrew Wakefield's research at the Royal Free Hospital [15], while important, was the first hint of a problem and it may be too early to jump to conclusions. Of course, the last thing the medical profession want is a whole lot of children not being vaccinated, since that increases the risk of epidemics. Here's what Wakefield actually said: 'Although MMR cannot by any means be described as a cause of autism, a child genetically predisposed to asthma, eczema , food allergy or intolerance, perhaps with possible disruption of the gut flora or with a fungal overgrowth, deficient in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, may be at risk from MMR. For them MMR could be described as the straw that broke the camel's back, tipping the balance of normal childhood development into a retrogressive state. [16]' However, despite many attempts to discredit Wakefield, a recent review of all the available evidence on autism and vaccination concludes 'there has not been a single credible study that can robustly refute the claims of the parents that their children's acquired autism has been caused by MMR or related measles-containing vaccines, or thimerosal-containing vaccines.' [17] A recent study found that in 55 out of 824 children with autism, the parents reported clear signs of regression associated with the MMR vaccine. If correct, this means that 6.7 per cent of autistic children, or 1 in 15, are attributed to the MMR vaccine, according to parents. [18]

For most children, the MMR vaccine is unlikely to be a problem, but having said this, no one really knows the full consequences of giving a child three immune attacks - mumps, measles and rubella - all at the same time. Getting all three illnesses at once simply doesn't occur in nature, so there's a logical argument for single vaccines if a parent so chooses, especially for children with weakened immune systems. Perhaps for these children, with nutrient deficiencies, lacking essential fatty acids, susceptible to food allergies, infections and/or gut problems, these triple vaccines are the last straw.

So just what is the evidence against MMR? First, studies have shown a high incidence of autism in children whose mothers had received live virus vaccines (particularly the MMR or rubella vaccine) immediately prior to conception during pregnancy, or immediately following birth [19]. Secondly, there are two classifications of autism: the first where autistic traits are noted from birth and the second where symptoms are noted at 18 months plus. Autism onset at 18 months was uncommon until the mid-1980s, when the MMR vaccine came into wide use. After that the incidence shot up [20]. Thirdly, there is now evidence that measles antibodies can lie in the central nervous system, potentially damaging brain and gut. In fact, many autistic children are found to have measles antibodies in the gut. It's a bit like having a chronic infection. It seems that this triple vaccine makes measles persist. The antidote for measles is vitamin A. This is one of the most important infection fighters for this virus.

The late Dr Bernard Rimland said that the problem may not be the vaccine itself, but a preservative used in multi-dose vials of many childhood vaccines till very recently. Thimerosal, a preservative containing high levels of mercury, was used in many vaccines up until 2001. Before this, each vaccine injection exposed the child to levels of toxic mercury in excess of the US federal government's own safety guidelines, and a child receiving all their jabs could have received a total of 187.5mcg of mercury - enough to give them heavy metal poisoning [21]. Mercury is known to inhibit the enzyme that digests gluten and casein, possibly increasing a child's susceptibility to wheat and milk allergy.

Although it is too early to conclude, it is entirely possible that late-onset autism may be triggered by multiple vaccinations, allergies, toxic overload or nutritional deficiencies and especially combinations of any of these that send a child's gut and brain into distress.

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