Addressing autism with food and herbs 

By Karla M. Parker

In the United States, one in 88 kids is diagnosed with autism. While researchers have not been able to pin down a single cause of autism, many risk factors and possible causes have been identified. There is growing interest in the intestinal permeability (IPT) or leaky gut hypothesis as a contributing factor in some cases of autism. A high percentage of abnormal IPT has been found in people with autism. In this population, diet may play an important role in the management of symptoms.

In IPT, persistent inflammation has compromised the integrity of the gut mucosa. Inflammation may be triggered by several factors including sensitivities to food proteins like gluten and casein. These proteins are normally too large to pass through the gut wall. When the gut becomes “leaky,” they are allowed to pass through, triggering an immune response, increased inflammation and neurotransmitter abnormalities. The result is physical and psychological symptoms. Specialized diets such as the Gluten-Free, Casein-Free (GFCF) diet and the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPSTM) diet have helped many autistic children achieve improved behaviors and reduced digestive symptoms. In addition to gluten and casein, soy, corn, eggs and citrus fruits are common irritants. A food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy and will not
show up on an allergy test. A sensitivity may be identified by an elimination diet, where the suspect food is completely eliminated for several months. If physical and/or behavioral symptoms improve during the elimination period, that food should be completely and permanently eliminated from the diet. Up to two years of elimination may be necessary for maximum improvement.

An imbalance in the layer of bacteria that protects the gut from pathogens can also inflame the digestive system and impair its ability to digest and absorb nutrients. Several propionic acid-producing bacteria (a possible trigger for autism) have been found in increased numbers in people with autism. Carbohydrates act as a substrate for these bacteria; therefore, low-carbohydrate diets have been suggested. The child with autism often has a very limited diet, refusing to eat anything but carbohydrate foods. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPSTM), suggests using Applied Behavior Analysis or behavioral modification, using a reward system to get kids to try new foods. Many of the digestive issues that the majority of people with autism suffer from—constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, GERD and gas—have been linked to increased irritability, tantrums, aggression and sleep problems. Many of these issues may be addressed with food and herbs.

The Foods

  • Use the elimination diet to determine sensitivities. Be aware of processed foods containing offending substances.
  • Avoid processed foods, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colorings and additives. When selecting foods, always choose nutrition over convenience.
  • Zinc and vitamins A, C and D are necessary for regeneration of the gut lining. Foods high in zinc include oysters, beef, lamb, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and sesame seeds. Good sources of vitamin A include liver/paté, butter or ghee, egg yolks and shellfish. Bell peppers, guavas, dark leafy greens, broccoli, kiwi, papaya, oranges and strawberries are good sources of vitamin C. Have vitamin D levels tested and supplement if necessary.
  • Slowly introduce fermented foods like high-quality yogurt or kefir (if not sensitive) or coconut yogurt, kimchi, miso or sauerkraut with every meal. Fermented foods help repopulate the gut with friendly bacteria. Rapid introduction can cause gas. A teaspoon or two of burdock root powder or inulin powder taken with fermented foods provides prebiotic food for the microbiome. Powders may be mixed with applesauce.
  • Ground nuts may be used in baked goods to replace glutinous flours. Many recipes using nut flours may be found on the Internet. Nuts and seeds provide a great source of minerals, healthy fats and protein. Opt for additive-free nuts in the shell.
  • Meats provide an excellent source of B vitamins and protein. Glutamine, an amino acid found in meats, is important to help regenerate enterocytes. Soups and stews made with bone broth are easily digestible and deeply nourishing. Choose organic, pastured meats.
  • Essential fatty acids nourish the brain and are important for neurologic function. Sources include fatty fish like wild salmon and sardines, grass-fed meats, organic eggs from pastured hens, nuts and avocados. 
  • Drink healthful beverages—fresh water, herbal teas, homemade nut milks, freshly juiced fruits and vegetables—in small amounts. 

The Herbs

An herbalist often combines herbs from several categories, depending on the individual child. Many herbs may be taken as a tea or mixed with juices to disguise the flavor. Herbs may also be taken in the form of an alcohol or glycerine extract. Consult with an herbalist on the proper use of herbs.

Herbs for the immune system:
Maitake – immune system tonic and modulator
Astragulus – prevents frequent colds and respiratory illnesses
Licorice – normalizes the immune system; heals the gastric mucosa
Reishi – normalizes the immune system; reduces anxiety and irritability
Schisandra – immune tonic; promotes focus, alertness and calm

Anti-inflammatory/antioxidants herbs:
Sarsaparilla – promotes removal of toxins in the bowel; anti-inflammatory
Turmeric – regulates the immune system; powerful anti-inflammatory
Amla fruit – helps inhibit allergy; anti-inflammatory
Rosemary – promotes clear thinking; antioxidant; anti-inflammatory
Blueberry fruit – enhances memory, focus and concentration; anti-inflammatory

Enhance phase II detoxification:
Milk thistle
Alpha lipoic acid
Indole 3 carbinol

Enhance eliminatory function (alteratives):
Cleavers – enhance lymphatic and kidney function
Dandelion root – increases liver and bowel elimination; contains inulin
Sarsaparilla – enhances kidney and liver function
Burdock root – soothing to the gut; liver tonic; contains inulin
Violet leaf – enhances lymphatic circulation and elimination; bowel and liver detoxification

Nervine/anxiolytic herbs promote sleep and calm irritability, anxiety and hyperactivity:
Linden flower
Passion flower
Milky oat
Lemon balm

Increase cerebral circulation (nootropics):
Gotu kola

Digestive System herbs:
Ginger – relieves nausea and indigestion
Cat’s claw – healing to the gut; reduce bowel inflammation and diarrhea
Chamomile – relieves nervous stomach
Fennel seed – relieves gas, bloating, belching and GERD
Wild yam – relieves GI pain and discomfort
Catnip – relieves GI pain and discomfort, especially if stress-induced
Plantain and calendula – healing to the gut wall |

Transl Psychiatry (2013) 3, e220; doi:10.1038/tp.2012.143. Unique acyl-carnitine profiles are potential biomarkers for acquired mitochondrial disease in autism spectrum disorder. RE Frye, et al.
Campbell-McBride, N. Gut and Psychology Syndrome. Medinform Publishing, Cambridge. 2010.
SciTech Daily. Study Reveals Link between Gut Bacteria and Autism. 2013. Accessed 9.5.13.
Winston, D., Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Search for Answers. Center for Herbal Studies. 2013.
Bergner, P. Systemic Inflammation, Food Intolerances, and Autoimmunity. NAIMH, 2013.
J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2010 Oct;51(4):418-24. Alterations of the intestinal barrier in patients with autism spectrum disorders and in their first-degree relatives. de Magistris L, et al. Gastroenterology, Second University of Naples, Italy.

Karla M. Parker is a certified herbalist and founder of The Artful Herbalist, LLC in New Tripoli, Pa., where she offers educational consultations and presentations. She is also a practitioner at Changewater Wellness Center in New Jersey. Karla holds a Bachelor of Science in natural health, and is a graduate of David Winston’s Center for Herbal Studies. Please visit her website at, or contact her at