Autism and Sugar Cravings: Is there a connection?

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As a mom of an autistic son, for the past 3 years we have been working hard to help him eat a more variety of foods and more nutritious foods too. When he was first diagnosed, his safe food list was very short and it was heavy on sugar. So I started wondering is there a connection between autism and sugar cravings? I want to share more about our journey and how his diet has changed over the past 3 years.

Remember, I am just a mom sharing our story. This blog post is not meant to be medical advice, just information that I have learned. Before you change your diet or your child’s, check with your doctor.

Now, let’s get into Autism and Sugar Cravings: Is there a connection?

Angela of Grassfed Mama shares healthy tips for busy moms.
Angela of Grassfed Mama shares healthy tips for busy moms.

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. The term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.

Autism’s most-obvious signs tend to appear between 2 and 3 years of age, but in some cases, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Some developmental delays associated with autism can be identified and addressed even earlier.

The exact cause of autism is not known, but it’s believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is no one type of autism, but many subtypes, and each person with autism can have a unique set of strengths and challenges.

People with autism often have associated medical conditions, such as sleep disturbances, seizures, and gastrointestinal disorders. They may also have mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, and attention issues.

While there is no cure for autism, early intervention and therapies can improve a person’s symptoms and ability to function. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at ages 18 and 24 months, along with regular developmental surveillance.

My son was diagnosed with autism when he was about 2.5. He probably could have been diagnosed earlier, but we had to wait for months to get into a center to have him evaluated.

What you may not have known about what causes sugar cravings and autism

Before he was diagnosed with autism, I honestly didn’t know how common it is for autistic people to struggle with gastrointestinal issues. And what I learned was that gastrointestinal (GI) issues are quite common in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The most comprehensive studies have shown that children with ASD are more than four times as likely to experience GI problems as those without ASD. The most commonly reported GI issues include constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

The exact reasons for the higher prevalence of GI issues in individuals with autism are not fully understood and can vary from person to person. It’s important for caregivers and healthcare providers to be aware of these potential issues to ensure appropriate care and treatment.

Best Diet for Autism
Best Diet for Autism

Research about Diet and Autism

When Anderson was first diagnosed, I started looking into a few studies about autism and how diet is connected. Research on diet and autism has revealed several connections:

1. Food Habits:

Studies have shown that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have different food habits compared to their peers. They may consume fewer fruits and vegetables and have a lower intake of calcium and protein.

2. Mealtime Challenges:

Children with ASD are more likely to have mealtime challenges such as tantrums, extreme food selectivity, and ritualistic eating behaviors. Even after 3 years, Anderson has safe foods and preferred foods. I think my goal is just that those foods are healthy choices for him and to introduce different foods as he welcomes it.

Sometimes he will eat more adventurously if it is from my plate, can any other moms relate? I try to eat as much dairy free and gluten free foods myself, so if he is curious I can share a bite.

3. Diet Therapies:

Some studies suggest that diet therapies can be beneficial for children with ASD, potentially improving core symptoms. Our therapy group works with many kids who have limited diets, you can reach out to get a referral to have your child evaluated to see if this is something they would benefit from.

4. Food Intolerances:

There’s a theory that some people with autism may have a “leaky gut,” which allows parts of food to escape from the gut into the bloodstream, causing an immune response. Some believe this could exacerbate autism symptoms, although more research is needed in this area.

We had a stool test done, and it showed signs of leaky gut. We also had a food intolerance test run and it came back with 12 different foods that he was reacting to. From that information, we eliminated some foods and also worked on sealing his gut with some supplements.

5. Gluten and Casein:

Some research suggests a link between autism and foods containing gluten (a protein found in wheat) and casein (a protein found in milk). Some parents and practitioners report improvements in behavior when these are removed from the diet, but scientific evidence is mixed and more research is needed. Here is more about a gluten and casein free diet. After running some biomedical/functional medicine tests, this is the diet we decided to follow with Anderson.

6. Nutrient Deficiencies:

A meta-analysis showed that children with ASD may consume a diet lower in certain nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and selenium. When we had Anderson testes, he did have some nutrient deficiencies, so I would highly recommend testing this.

It’s important to note that while these findings are interesting, more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between diet and autism. Any dietary changes should be made under the guidance of a healthcare provider or a dietitian to ensure the individual is still receiving adequate nutrition.

Research about Yeast Overgrowth and Autism

After running the initial biomedical and functional medicine test, we realized that Anderson had a massive problem with yeast overgrowth. The more I learned the symptoms of yeast overgrowth, it became more apparent that it was causing a lot of issues.

Research on the connection between yeast overgrowth, specifically Candida, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is ongoing and not yet conclusive. Some studies suggest that Candida releases toxins into the bloodstream, which can disrupt the immune system and potentially influence brain functioning, contributing to behaviors associated with autism.

However, it’s important to note that not all individuals with ASD have an overgrowth of Candida in the gut, making it difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship. While some parents and practitioners report improvements in ASD symptoms following antifungal treatments or diets aimed at reducing yeast overgrowth, these observations are anecdotal and more scientific research is needed. *Any treatment approach should be discussed with a healthcare provider to ensure it’s safe and appropriate for the individual’s specific needs.

Research about GI Issues and Autism

Research has shown a significant association between gastrointestinal (GI) issues and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Studies have reported that constipation is a primary GI comorbidity with ASD (it is highly correlated), and the odds of constipation increase with greater social impairment and less verbal ability.

Alternating constipation and diarrhea have also been reported in individuals with ASD. Furthermore, GI disorders are associated with increased ASD severity. This suggests that GI issues are not just a side effect but may be intrinsically linked to the disorder.

What we saw with Anderson was that he was constipated (or at least not as regular as he should be) and his poop was not well formed either when he did poop. I later would describe his poop as being full of oxalates which is very common with yeast overgrowth.

However, the exact nature of this link is still being researched. It’s important to note that managing these GI issues can often lead to improvements in behavior and overall quality of life for individuals with ASD. Therefore, healthcare providers should consider screening for GI issues as part of the overall management strategy for ASD.

Read more about Complex GI Issues in Autism

What has worked for our family: Autism and Sugar Cravings in Real Life

Our first step was to build a team to help us support Anderson. After I researched about autism and sugar cravings, I knew that we needed to figure out the root cause. I worked with Greer of Biomedical Healing for Kids and she helped me order the right tests to get behind just the symptoms and figure out the root causes.

When the tests results came back showing a high yeast overgrowth, we knew this was causing the sugar cravings because yeast feeds on sugar. We changed his diet to gluten free and dairy free and found some alternatives to his favorite foods.

Later, I learned about mitochondrial disfunction, which did show up on his tests too, and it would seem like if you are having trouble converting energy you would crave simple carbs and sugar to help you stay energized through out the day too.

Working with Greer, we had a plan in place to target the yeast overgrowth as well as support his digestive system. After 3 years, we are making consistent progress. He is more regular and no signs of oxalates like before. He is eating a more varied diet including eggs, sausage, beef patties, and lots of fruit. He isn’t the biggest fan of vegetables, so that’s something to work on.

What I have learned is that sugar cravings are usually a symptom of something out of balance in your gut. A healthy gut wants to nourish the body with healthy nutrient rich foods. There are some easy steps you can take to improve gut health – one is just to eat more variety and more fruits and vegetables. Paying attention to cravings is always a good test for your gut health.

More Resources

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism

The Autism Community in Action

Biomedical Healing for Kids

Our Journey Through a Nonverbal Autism Diagnosis at 2.5 years

Service Dogs for Autism Support

Activities to Encourage Speech and Language at Home

Best Sensory Toys

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Angela Parker
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