Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Warrior Mother and the Diet/Autism Connection

(A version of this entry can be found in the Honolulu Weekly)

I never knew Katie Berry had a son with Autism, despite having met him multiple times. Katie is one of those moms who comes into Baby Awearness and blows me away  - she is a funny, crafty, talented military mom. But after attending an Autism and ADHD lecture given by Thauna Abrin, ND, Katie Berry is officially my hero.

The gist of Abrin’s lecture was as follows: Modern day, western diets - diets devoid of the B vitamins, trace minerals, and the essential fatty acids found in leafy greens, whole grains, and nuts/seeds -  have effectively incapacitated the gut and shut down the liver. This dysfunctional “leaky gut” leaves our brains starving for the nutrients it needs to properly function. The liver, meanwhile, can’t properly process environmental toxins, so our body turns into a cesspool of sorts.

Simultaneously, mindless eating has led us to mistake food sensitivities and GI disorders for behavioral problems to be to be treated with heavy doses of medication: from stimulants to anti-depressants.

After Abrin’s lecture, Berry recounted nights of terror watching her then 2-year old son completely shut down, crying and vomiting for no apparent reason. Her days were filled with high-pitched screams and tantrums. Her life was spiraling out on control.

After months of denial, Berry began pounding the pathways of various military medical offices, trying to find the help she so desperately needed. She fired doctors, walked out of daycares, and refused the medication-based treatments offered to her. “It was just me, my husband, and Jenny McCarthy,” Berry laughed.

In addition to the standard occupational, speech, and behavioral therapy, Berry decided that her family needed a total diet overhall, and she began practicing the wholistic DAN (Defeat Autism Now) treatment made famous by celebrity mom Jenny McCarthy. Mixing the Feingold and GFCF (gluten-free, casein free) diets, Berry’s family also got off processed foods and artificial food additives. “It was hard…but within 2 weeks, we started to see the improvements. I didn’t get one new word out of him, but it didn’t matter. The crying stopped. He started to sleep, and I felt sane for the first time.”

DAN, or the biomedical approach to Autism, examines “how GI disorders, detoxification and other metabolic issues, and nutrition, impact a child’s sense of self, behavior, attention, speech, and general health and wellbeing.” It primarily involves testing for toxins, food sensitivities, taking supplements and changing one’s diet.

While mainstream treatments for Autism focus on behavioral, occupational, and speech therapies, diet is often overlooked. “There is a lot of 'anecdotal' evidence to suggest that a gluten free dairy free diet is helpful, there is not to my knowledge any scientific evidence to back up the personal stories,” cautions Kristine Cuthrell, former president of the local HI Dietition's Association. Indeed, MDs disregard the biomedical route because DAN therapies lack the double blind, placebo controlled experiments to soundly demonstrate their effectiveness and safety.

For Abrin, its not worth the wait. “If we waited for these studies to come out for every therapy we use, we'd be missing the opportunity to help kids who could significantly benefit.”

While the biomedical approach to Autism is marginalized, with so many stories like Berry’s, I have to ask, why? Are we so attached to our industrial diets that we are willfully ignoring its tragic behavioral side effects?

Although I am not an expert in Autism, the stories of Berry and Abrin resonate with my understanding of the culture of industrial food consumption.

Eating ignorantly, and on the go, we are surrounded by food – cheap food – seemingly healthy low fat, no-carb food, and yet we still don’t know what to eat. Despite the proliferation of scientifically backed, heart association enforced, FDA-approved products and diets, every year we’re getting fatter and sicker - with heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Our children might be suffering too.

“People don’t see the gut/brain connection,” muses Berry. “They might acknowledge having a sugar rush, or being drunk from the beer in their belly, but if you suggest that processed food causes Autism, suddenly there is no relation.”

Practicing the Feingold or GFCF diets is no walk in the park. Parties, relatives, and even school lunches suddenly become battlegrounds. On top of being difficult, biomedical tests and treatments are expensive (many lack any insurance coverage) and they take time. “People are looking for a quick fix, a magic pill,” explains Abrin. “A biomedical breakthrough generally takes around a year and a half. That can cost close to $10,000.”

The money, the time, and the effort – for Berry, it was worth it. “I just needed hope…and the stories of mom’s who had had success through diet, gave me that hope.” Today, Berry’s son is a quirky, happy, healthy 6 year old. Their story, like so many others in the biomedical community, powerfully demonstrates the importance of total health and wellbeing, and the need for all of us to think about what we are putting into our own mouths, and the mouths of our kids.

For more information, visit:

Baby Awearness will host another Austim Lecture with Dr Abrin in April, 2011.

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