[This is the guest post in our ongoing series: Getting Your Hopes Up: Stories of Healing Thru Diet and Nutrition. Each month we post stories directly from mothers and fathers, on their experience using food and nutrition to help heal their child with autism, ADHD, and other developmental delays.]
By Terri Burges Hirning
Whenever I tell people that my son (8 years old) is recovered from Autism they say 1) they are shocked that he had a diagnosis of Autism at one time and 2) they didn’t think Autism was something that you could “recover from.” As we started down the path of understanding the biochemistry involved in my son’s diagnosis and all that it entailed, we would get a crash course in just how important diet is for the brain in addition to the obvious, the gut.
I began to hear the phrase “the gut is the 2nd brain” and as we made changes to my son’s diet I began to see that with chilling clarity. We started by removing dairy when he was 2 1/2 at the advice of my friend/occupational therapist. My son was truly addicted to dairy, he wanted milk more than he wanted food! I learned that often what we are intolerant to we crave. That was true with my son. I started tracking his behaviors with the foods he was eating. All of the additives in our foods, that in many cases were forms of MSG even though they don’t have the label of MSG, were wreaking havoc on his developing brain and therefore his behavior, sleep, interactions with others, etc. I began cutting out the over 200 forms of MSG, trans fats, dyes and dairy. He went through detox, which was pretty intense. But, the end result was a child who was sleeping better and not having as many tantrums. By his 3rd birthday I had removed gluten. After some extensive testing we found widespread inflammation in his little body just prior to his 4th birthday. We also targeted IgG food allergies, which were contributing to that inflammation. We also found that he had very high oxalates. While gluten free and casein free (GFCF) cooking was a way of life by now, throwing in another variable like oxalates was challenging. That is where I met Julie Matthews, through a private consult. I would later hear her at many DAN! conferences where I kept trying to learn all I could to help heal my son.
At first this journey was just about my son. But each conference I would go to and hear Drs. and researchers and nutritionists all talk about the role of diet in disease. When I heard about the stimulation of the immune system in many of us within 20 minutes of ingesting gluten, I knew I had to implement this for our whole family. I began connecting the dots with the complaints many of our family members would make about their arthritis, chronic fatigue, inability to lose weight, etc. They were all facing auto-immune issues without even knowing it! And if we didn’t change something up, that’s where we would be someday too! We had already seen so much improvement in our son with the removal of foods that he was intolerant to. When he had infractions his behavior swung wildly, aggression, tantrums, screaming was what we ended up with. Who says food doesn’t impact the brain? But I didn’t know what to expect for the rest of my family. My daughter was just a few years old when we removed gluten from the rest of our diets. She had eczema on her feet, which was brushed off with “put on cortisone cream” by our then-pediatrician. Once we removed gluten the eczema completely resolved! What we eat impacts more than just our digestive system.
But this knowledge was so empowering! I started researching just what many of these ingredients are that we commonly eat in everyday items. We would eventually eliminate almost everything that came in a box or can. Most of our meals are homemade and yes it can be time consuming but I have said from the beginning that I would rather spend that time cooking rather than dealing with my son’s meltdowns due to these harmful ingredients. I began to understand that many of the oils used in packaged foods (even the gluten free ones) are really not healthy at all! We replaced most oils with coconut oil, which has largely been villanized for years. The result? Increase in mitochondrial function for my son and I. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells and many times that functioning is impaired in children with Autism. Since mitochondria come from moms, many moms of children with Autism also suffer from mitochondrial dysfunction – quite commonly in the form of chronic fatigue. I also started losing weight very easily! My husband’s previously (very) high cholesterol has normalized after years of pharmaceutical use with no such change. He is now off ALL medications and healthier than ever before!! We switched to organic grass fed beef and organic chicken. We try and eat organic whenever possible. We buy through co-ops and when things are on sale and stock our freezer. We only use Eden Foods canned goods since they are the only manufacturers I know of that don’t use BPA lined cans.
When we look at how we – as humans – used to eat it is really sad to see how far away from that we are right now. But, by making these changes I can feel good about my family’s future!! My 13 year old step daughter will often come to us for her visits with stomach complaints and digestive issues. After just a few days of eating our way those issues will resolve.
Diet is powerful. I believe this is the foundation for health or illness, and that depends on what you choose to put into your body 3 times a day (at least). I am sure that to many we are “extreme” when it comes to food. But, to have my son tell me he loves me, play with his sisters, and just be a “typical” 8 year old tells me that all of this is worth it. The changes that can come are profound and to see diet’s impact on the brain and development is amazing.