Autism is a highly sensitive topic. Members of the autism community, including families and supporters of individuals with autism and related disorders, may not share the view that autism is a disease or should be cured. While remaining sensitive to the full range of individual experiences, there is a clear need to explore safe and effective ways to improve the health, wellness, and quality of life of individuals on the autism spectrum. This article explores the possible causes of autism, the effects and potential benefits of a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet on autism, and how individuals with autism can begin a keto diet to see if their experience of life can be improved.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to learn, communicate and interact socially. Autism is considered a spectrum disorder because its symptoms and severity vary from person to person. Some individuals with autism can carry out life completely independently, while others may require considerable assistance to complete daily tasks.
According to 2018 data, the CDC reports that about one in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with ASD.Here are some statistics you may not know about ASD in the U.S.
The prevalence of ASD is fairly similar across all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Girls are four times less likely than boys to be diagnosed with autism. And 31% of children diagnosed with ASD are classified in the intellectual disability range, 25% in the borderline range, and 44% in the average to above average range.
What Causes Autism?
The exact cause of ASD is unknown. The current study suggests that there is no single cause.
Some suspected risk factors for ASD include:
- having an immediate family member who’s autistic
- certain genetic mutations
- fragile X syndrome and other genetic disorders
- being born to older parents
- low birth weight
- metabolic imbalances
- exposure to heavy metals and environmental toxins
- a maternal history of viral infections
- fetal exposure to the medications valproic acid or thalidomide (Thalomid)
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) source, both genetics and environment may determine whether a person will develop ASD.
6 Ways the Keto Diet May Benefit Autism Spectrum Disorder
#1: Promotes Healthy Brain Function
Recent studies show that a keto diet enhances brain health and cognitive performance.
Keto also improves the symptoms of autism, epilepsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and migraines.
A keto diet is very low in carbohydrates compared to diets high in sugar and other carbohydrates, which makes your brain and body rely on fat burning and ketone body production for fuel.
On a keto diet, high ketone levels reduce brain inflammation and change gene expression for the better, which promotes healthy brain function and improves cognition.
#2: Boosts Mood
Autism alters the excitability and inhibition of the brain, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Ketosis may help in several ways:
Aggression and Stable Mood
A keto diet stabilizes overexcited brain areas in a similar way to mood-stabilizing drugs such as lithium, which are sometimes used to treat aggression and mood swings in people with autism.
Ketones also improve brain energy metabolism by shifting your body’s energy source from glucose to ketone bodies (also called ketones). In these ways, a ketogenic diet may help stabilize and improve mood in people with autism.
Children with epilepsy see a significant decrease in anxiety, decreased mood disturbance, and raised productivity when they switch to a keto diet.
#3: Improves Gut Health
Keto is significantly better than a low-fat, high-carb diet at boosting positive mood (and reducing hunger) in people without autism.
Your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) is filled with trillions of bacteria, and they love to dabble in mind control.
The gut bacteria have a direct line of contact to your brain, and they produce neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals that can change your mood and brain function, as well as your body’s immune and inflammation responses.
Your gut bacteria affect serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that influence mood and motivation. People with autism tend to have disorders of 5-hydroxytryptamine and dopamine production, and 74% of children with autism have gastrointestinal disturbances.
Gut flora alterations can contribute to depression, stress response, and autism severity
Eating a ketogenic diet can starve bad gut bacteria and support healthy gut bacteria, which can restore the balance of your gut microbiome and also increase the production of beneficial short-chain fatty acids and the neurotransmitters 5-hydroxytryptamine and GABA.
#4: Reduces Inflammation and Autoimmunity
Researchers believe that inflammation, oxidative stress and immune activation play a key role in the formation and persistent symptoms of autism.
Autistic children are more likely to be overweight or obese compared to children without autism, and autism symptoms are more severe the more overweight a person is.
Obesity can also lead to inflammation and autoimmune dysfunction, which may exacerbate the symptoms of autism.
Children who ate keto for six months lost significantly more weight than children on a low-calorie, low-fat diet. The authors concluded that keto is both safe and beneficial for overweight children, and that being in a state of ketosis caused no significant side effects.
Eating ketones also promotes healthy brain function, increases neuroplasticity, reduces oxidative stress, and decreases inflammation in the central nervous system. All of these can help alleviate symptoms of autism from inflammation and oxidative stress.
#5: Makes Mothers Healthier Before and During Pregnancy
Children with autism are much more likely to develop severe autism if their mothers are unhealthy during pregnancy.
Mothers who are obese during pregnancy are 47% more likely to have a child with autism, and their children have a 17-51% increased risk of developing neurodevelopmental disorders.
Obese mothers also pass on an increased risk of neuroinflammation, insulin resistance, reduced brain plasticity, and neurotransmitter dysregulation in their children.
Mothers with diabetes or high blood pressure are 61% more likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental delays.
If you’re going to have a baby, you want to make sure you’re as healthy as possible, especially when it comes to weight.
Following a low-carb, high-fat diet can reduce body weight and improve blood sugar and insulin levels, which may reduce the odds of having autistic children.
The Takeaway: Keto May Help With Autism Symptoms
Autism spectrum disorders often present challenges in the form of emotional problems, social impairment and physical symptoms.
Low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets, such as the ketogenic diet, are a promising option for improving the health, wellness, and quality of life of individuals with autism.
In addition to promoting healthy brain function, enhancing gut health, and reducing inflammation, the keto diet also makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight and reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Dietary changes can be one practical way to manage autism at home, but remember you are not alone in this battle.
If you connect with experts and other parents of children with autism, you will find it easier to address the challenges that arise from an autism diagnosis.