Wheat: A Missing Piece In the Autism Puzzle

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Wheat: A Missing Piece In the Autism Puzzle

People often balk at the concept that a gluten-free diet may improve the condition of autistic children. For so many who have tried it, the proof is not in academic publications but in the (gluten free) pudding. Nothing is more compelling than seeing improvement with your own eyes, not even a randomized, double-blinded clinical trial.

Along the same lines as "vaccines can’t cause autism," dietary and environmental factors are often written off by conventional medical authorities in favor of a hitherto unavailable genetic explanation. They would much rather label something "idiopathic," a fancy word for "we don’t know," than to embark on a more extensive inquiry, such as exploring the causal factors embedded within everyday chemical exposures or dietary patterns.

But, the reality is that gluten contains a wide range of biologically active peptides, which the accumulating science on wheat toxicity now shows can profoundly affect neurological, endocrine, immune and digestive health, to name but a few body systems prominently affected.  The incredulity of the conventional medical community towards the perspective that diet and behavior are intimately connected leaves many wondering how they attained such lofty positions of medical authority, or why we so readily give up our healthcare decision-making powers to them, in the first place.   

This is, in fact, why I created GreenMedInfo.com. As an active aggregator and growing index of high-integrity, peer-reviewed and published biomedical research (entirely sourced from the National Library of Medicine), the information we provide the public enables them to access the first-hand science itself, removing the many-layered opacities and distortions of "expert opinion," which too often is compromised either with hidden agendas or outdated thinking, enabling our users to draw their own conclusions from the data itself.

So, let’s look at a study published in the journal of Nutritional Neuroscience in 2004 titled, "Immune response to dietary proteins, gliadin and cerebellar peptides in children with autism."[1]

Researchers set out to illuminate the mechanisms behind the autoimmune reaction to nervous system antigens in autistic subjects.  They took the blood of 50 autism patients and 50 healthy controls, and looked at the peptides from gliadin (a wheat protein) and the cerebellum, the part of the brain that plays a vital role in motor control, and cognitive functions such as attention, language and fear and pleasure responses.

The researchers found:

A significant percentage of autism patients showed elevations in antibodies against gliadin and cerebellar peptides simultaneously.

Then, the researchers used an animal model to find out whether these simultaneous elevations were a result of cross-reactivity between dietary proteins and cerebellar proteins (antigens), i.e., whether the immune system produces anti-gliadin antibodies which mistakenly attack brain proteins.

They found rabbit anti-gliadin and anti-cerebellar peptides cross-reacted by greater than 60%, spurning them to conclude the following:

We conclude that a subgroup of patients with autism produce antibodies against Purkinje cells [a GABA-producing neuron from the cerebral cortex] and gliadin peptides, which may be responsible for some of the neurological symptoms in autism.

This is not the only study to draw attention to the wheat-autism connection. In fact, the highly respected Cochrane Collaboration did a meta-analysis of the evidence on the subject and published their results in 2004.[2] They provided the following background to their study:

It has been suggested that peptides from gluten and casein may have a role in the origins of autism and that the physiology and psychology of autism might be explained by excessive opioid activity linked to these peptides. Research has reported abnormal levels of peptides in the urine and cerebrospinal fluid of persons with autism. If this is the case, diets free of gluten and /or casein should reduce the symptoms associated with autism.

Their search strategy was to scour the research going back to 1965. They were only able to find one study that fit their criteria, but it was sufficient for them to report that a combined gluten- and casein-free diet resulted in a significant beneficial effect for the reduction in autistic traits.  

For further reading on food opiates in wheat and dairy, as well as other common foods, and their possible adverse effects on neurological health, read our recent article on the topic: Do Hidden Opiates In Our Food Explain Food Addictions?

Also, The #6 position on our list of 192 diseases linked to wheat consumption is Schizophrenia, indicating that wheat's dark side includes neurotoxicity and/or unintended adverse psychiatric effects. This was, in fact, the subject of our recent article linking wheat consumption to episodes of acute mania titled, Can Wheat Drive More Than Your Digestive System Crazy?

In conclusion, the connection between wheat (and dairy) consumption and autism is not simply anecdotal. There is research showing a possible mechanism for its problematic role in the condition. For those who do not believe that the truth can only flow through double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials, it may be worth trying the elimination diet, and seeing if it results in improvement. Nothing could be more empirical, or "scientific" than this; nor can any harm be done through this approach.

For additional research on autism, and autism spectrum disorders, you can visit our research pages on the topic by clicking the hyperlinks in this sentence.  Also, learn more about wheat toxicity by reading the essay series The Dark Side of Wheat.  You can also join the Wheat & Gluten Research Center on Facebook for ongoing updates.


[1] Immune response to dietary proteins, gliadin and cerebellar peptides in children with autism. Nutr Neurosci. 2004 Jun;7(3):151-61. PMID: 15526989

[2] Gluten- and casein-free diets for autistic spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004(2):CD003498. PMID: 15106205


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