By Rebecca Rugh-Webb, School Psychologist

Working as a school psychologist for the last eight years and having my own small children I have come to observe that children today seem to be struggling with a variety of health and behavioral concerns to a significant degree more than previous generations. There is much debate over the cause of these “new” difficulties which include an increased risk of asthma, environmental and food allergies, autism spectrum disorders, sensory integration disorder, ADHD, anxiety and depression. Working within my family, as a result of my first daughters medical and behavioral difficulties, I came to discover the path I like to call “food as medicine”.

A subset of doctors also share this philosophy, commonly referred to as integrative physicians or functional medicine specialists. These specialists are successfully treating a variety of mental and physical disorders with nutritional programs and vitamins and minerals depending on each person’s unique make-up. Treating symptoms with medication, as is “traditional” practice, only masks the underlying root cause of the problem. A great blog for the Huffington post called “The Biggest Medical Discovery of Our Lifetimes: Finding the Cure for Chronic Disease” by Mark Hymann, discussed the implications of functional medicine. What resonated with me was his quote, “Depression is not a Prozac deficiency”. He goes on to say that depression is not the cause of the symptoms; it is merely the name we give to that cluster of symptoms. Finding and treating the cause is more powerful than treating the symptoms.

There is a growing body of quality research that show dietary interventions can significantly impact the behaviors commonly associated with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Recently a study came out from Penn State University that involved giving autistic children a gluten-free/casein-free diet (GFCF). The results showed that children’s symptoms improved, and in some cases, their autism was reversed (Nutr Neurosci, 2012; 15:85-91). This new information challenges current beliefs about autism. Many ask, “If it can be reversed, was it really autism to begin with?” Defeat Autism Now (DAN) doctors tend to say that children with autism and autistic like symptoms suffer a host of medical conditions (difficulty detoxifying, leaky gut, sleep difficulties, gut bacteria imbalances, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and severe allergies) and through a step-by-step process of treating the medical difficulties, the symptoms of autism often diminish. This appears to be the case for ADHD as well, as another study revealed that these children were able to discontinue their medication six months after switching to a GFCF diet (Lancet, 2011 Feb 5;377(9764):494-503). This has far reaching implications, as adjusting diet is not associated with the negative side effects commonly found to occur as a result of medication.

Why GFCF? Dr. James Adams, a professor and director of the Arizona State University Autism/Asperger’s Research Program wrote, “Human digestive systems have not evolved on a diet containing high amounts of wheat and dairy products. Humans are the only animals who drink milk as adults, and the only ones to drink the milk of another animal. Cow’s milk is a perfect food for baby cows, but not for humans or infants. Over the last several hundred years, wheat has been bred to greatly increase its gluten content, and the typical US diet contains far higher amounts of wheat than humans were eating 1000-10,000 years ago.” Take dairy for an example: people who are sensitive to milk products often experience medical difficulties which can include chronic ear infections, eczema, allergies (immediate and delayed), a weakened immune system, brain fog, dark circles under the eyes, headaches, early onset puberty, digestive difficulties, leaky gut and a host of other problems. Both gluten and dairy contain enzymes that are difficult to break down and can impact the brain in a way similar to heroin (by attaching to the opiate receptors). Typically, if you are sensitive to one, you are sensitive to the other. Given such difficulties, a variety of medical and behavioral disorders have shown a reduction in symptoms when on a GFCF diet.

As for my daughter, I am happy to report that great strides have been made by going dairy free, gluten free, artificial preservative and dye free, and with supplementing with specific vitamins, minerals, internal yeast treatments and with probiotics. It might seem like a lot, but I was a mother on a mission. As a result, the whole family is healthier since we made the switch with food and doctors. Sometimes you have to think outside the box…or make the box bigger. My advice: if your children are not healthy and happy, consider food.