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Can Diet Changes Improve Neurocognitive Disorders?



Elimination diets and intensive nutritional therapy have become wildly popular among parents of children dealing with issues that range from mild focus problems to serious neurological disorders.

Proponents of this type of therapy point to life-changing results. “I won’t say I can cure every child with a neurological disorder,” says Deborah Z. Bain, MD. But parents report that diet changes are game changers, she says. “They tell me, ‘He’s making eye contact, he’s speaking, he’s a new person.’”

Treatment or cure?

Sandra Kimmet, a mom of four, is a doubter. She wanted to find a miracle cure for 7-year-old Jasper’s sensory processing disorder and 5-year-old Tabitha’s childhood apraxia of speech, a motor speech disorder. But a gluten-free, sugar-free diet didn’t yield results. She credits her children’s progress to intensive therapy, rather than dietary changes.

“Parents shouldn’t think of food as a cure but rather as one tool they can use to help their child,” says pediatric neuropsychologist Daniela Ferdico, PsyD.

Dr. Ferdico makes a distinction between treatment and cure: A cure is a one-time solution, whereas treatments are ongoing. Like speech, occupational and behavioral therapies, nutritional therapy is usually ongoing and works best when it’s just one component of a more comprehensive plan, she says.

Dr. Ferdico notes that although nutritional therapy won’t cure autism, dietary changes can stabilize blood sugar to ward off mood swings and meltdowns and supply the body with the protein and nutrients required for cognition.

Identify the culprit

Nutritional therapy sometimes involves an elimination diet during which a child avoids certain foods and then gradually has them reintroduced to help pinpoint food sensitivities. Researchers have long theorized that foods containing gluten, soy and casein, a protein in milk, may irritate the intestines of sensitive children with autism, contributing to a “leaky gut” that leaches inflammatory proteins throughout the body.

The inflammation contributes to mental fog, inattentiveness, unresponsive behavior and continued carbohydrate cravings, says Dr. Bain. “It’s a feed-forward cycle, where the child eats more and more unhealthy foods.”

Involve a professional

Because elimination diets can get complicated quickly, parents shouldn’t simply yank nutrient-dense foods such as grains and cheese from a child’s plate without consulting their pediatrician and a dietician, says registered dietician Kathleen Putnam, MS.

The elimination of entire food groups can introduce nutrient deficiencies, complicating an already complex situation, Putnam says. “Nutrition that’s limited can contribute to problematic development, both cognitive and behavioral.”

Nutrition addition

Under the guidance of your child’s health care provider, you may need to give your child supplemental nutrients to replace those you’ve removed, or ones your child was missing before you started. Supplementation can benefit some kids on the autism spectrum; a 2005 study found sleep and digestion improved in autistic children taking a multivitamin supplement.

Parents shouldn’t supplement without consulting a nutritionist or dietician, Dr. Bain says, because taking too much of one nutrient can impact others. “Nutrients don’t work in isolation,” she notes, and each child has a unique nutritional blueprint.

Where to start

A pediatrician or naturopathic physician can order a simple blood test to check for nutritional deficiencies. Parents who suspect food sensitivity in their child can ask about immunoglobulin G (IgG) food allergy testing. This blood test can identify food sensitivities to pinpoint the best dietary candidates for elimination from a child’s plate.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. 

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