By recent ASU nutrition student Alysia Nelson
Part of an ongoing series of articles on the Ketogenic Diet
Currently, Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the U.S. affecting 1 in 68 children.1 Out of those children, boys are five times more likely to have autism leaving 1 in every 42 boys and 1 in every 189 girls to be diagnosed.1 Autism differs from person to person, making it hard for researchers to find a conclusive cause, treatment, and diagnosis.2 This prevalent disease leaves many hopeless that one day there could be a cure. What if those suffering from autism could see improvements just through nutrition? Imagine the hope that would be restored for families affected by a disease that is widely misunderstood. Studies conclude that a ketogenic diet improves behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder.3
What is autism? A basic definition will tell you that Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is a complex set of neurological disorders that severely impair social, communicative, and cognitive functions.4 Autism was discovered by Dr. Leo Kanner, 1943, who noticed 11 children that showed a lack of interest in people but had a highly unusual interest in the inanimate world.4 However, autism is still a disorder with many questions as the science and treatment for it can be difficult. Although autism has been proven to be a genetically based condition, the cause of it is still unknown. There were once beliefs that vaccines could cause autism, this theory has been disproven through many studies.4 There were also misconceptions that autism was a form of schizophrenia brought out in children who experienced bad parenting and traumatic experience; this theory has also been disproven through studies.4 A person is born with autism, it is not something that they can just get. Early diagnosis of this disorder can be detected at just 6 months if a baby is displaying signs.4 Signs range through severity but can include: lack of eye contact, lack joint attention, engaging in repetitive motions, failure to respond to their name, resistance to change, and aggression or self-injury in the most extreme cases.4
While treatments for Autism range from patient to patient, there is an agreeance that the earlier the child receives intervention services the better the prognosis is.4 Intervention services commonly include: applied behavioral analysis (ABA) and occupational, speech, and physical therapy.4 These methods have proven to be most effective, but they still are not a cure. There are also means of treatment through medication due to the combination of autism patients experiencing seizures. Seizures are so common in autistic patients that 30-50% experience them.4 We have learned through previous studies that a ketogenic diet proves to be effective in the treatment of epilepsy, and evidence supports the benefit of a ketogenic diet in treating the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.4 In a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology and Information (NCBI), a ketogenic diet improved behavioral characteristics of autism spectrum disorder in mice.3 The diet was noted to improve sociability and reduced repetitive behavior in female mice.3 There were limited effects in male mice, however, the diet proved to never worsen relevant behaviors.4
In another study published in NCBI, research shows the potential therapeutic use of a ketogenic diet in Autism Spectrum Disorders, more specifically how the diet improved mitochondrial function.5 More research is needed to understand the improved mitochondrial function, but improvement showed a better energy and/or neurotransmitter management in symptoms.5 A ketogenic diet is shown to improve and even reverse autism behaviors in a mouse model in this next study published in the NCBI.6 After 3-4 weeks of feeding the mice affected by autism, their new ketogenic diet reduced social abnormalities in the assessments of sociability, social contact, and self-directed repetitive behavior in male offspring.6 In this study, the female offspring (given the same bacterial and viral infection during gestation to induce ASD) exhibited normal sociability and therefore there was to behavior to improve through diet.6 This study relates to the male prevalence in humans where males are more likely to develop autism.6
In conclusion, the previous studies noted appear to show a direct relationship between a ketogenic diet and the improvement of autism spectrum behaviors. The results also concluded that the carbohydrate restriction played a role in ASD core behaviors when diets that were high in carbohydrates worsened behaviors.6 The phenomenon of the ketogenic diet’s role in ASD is contributed to the natural metabolic state of ketosis.6 Additional takeaway benefits of a ketogenic diet from the studies include improved mitochondrial function, lowered glucose concentrations, reduced inflammation, and increased adenosine.6 While a ketogenic might not cure ASD in every patient, it proves to be a beneficial treatment for those with autism.
1 Facts about Autism. (2012, June 05). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/facts-about-autism
2 Autism and the Ketogenic Diet. (2017, December 11). Retrieved from https://www.ruled.me/autism-ketogenic-diet/
3 Ruskin, D. N., Fortin, J. A., Bisnauth, S. N., & Masino, S. A. (2017, January 01). Ketogenic diets improve behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder in a sex-specific manner in the EL mouse. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27836684
4 Quick Facts About Autism. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://autismsciencefoundation.org/what-is-autism/quick-facts-about-autism/
5 Napoli, E., Dueñas, N., & Giulivi, C. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4074854/
6 Ruskin, D. N., Murphy, M. I., Slade, S. L., & Masino, S. A. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5293204/
Editor’s Note: Fill Your Plate neither endorses or supports this type of diet, but encourages readers to always consult with your doctor regarding special diets. This series shares one nutrition student’s experience with the diet.