Gluten, Casein, Leaky Gut, and Digestive Enzymes

Gluten and Casein – Why They Are Harmful to Many Autistic Children

Casein is a protein found in milk.  Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains.  When these enter the stomach, our digestive system breaks them down into something called peptides.  One of the peptides created from casein is called casomorphin.  One of the peptides created from gluten is called gliadorphin (or also called gluteomorphin).  Both of these peptides are called opioid peptides because they act very much like morphine (notice the similarity in their names).  When the urine of autistic children is tested, these peptides are found in much higher amounts than in the urine of typical children.  Here’s what happens –

Most people have digestive enzymes working properly so that casomorphin and gliadorphin are further broken down into inactive dipeptides, which are harmless.  However, autistic children generally lack sufficient digestive enzymes to break these peptides down.  So these substances flow out of the stomach into the intestines.  Now, this might would still be ok, but autistic kids have what is referred to as a “leaky gut.”  This means that these peptides do not stay in the digestive system, but instead leak out through the intestinal membranes into the blood.  When casomorphin and gliadorphin leak into the blood, they are able to attach to the opiate receptors in our brains, thus mimicking the effects of opiate drugs like heroin and morphine. These compounds have been shown to react with areas of the brain such as the temporal lobes, which are involved in speech and auditory integration.  So they are basically acting like a drug – which is also why many autistic kids act spacey and lack focus.  It also explains why many of them are addicted to milk and chicken nuggets because they get a “drug fix” from these foods.  They can even go through withdrawal when these items are taken away from their diet.

Leaky Gut

Ok, let me go back to the leaky gut.  Here is what I found about it, and it explains it well:

Leaky gut.: Many autistic individuals have permeable intestinal tracts, and this is often referred to as ‘leaky gut.’ There appears to be many reasons for the problem of ‘leaky gut’ in autistic individuals, such as a viral infection (e.g. measles), yeast infection, and a reduction in phenol sulfur transferase (PST), which lines the intestinal tract and protects it. There is also some speculation that heavy metals in the intestinal tract can weaken membranes; and this, in turn, can cause ‘leaky gut.’

Digestive Enzymes

Because children with autism tend to have a leaky gut, it is important to supplement their diet with digestive enzymes.  This helps to break down the food before harmful substances can enter the intestinal tract and leak out.  The enzyme Dipeptidyl Peptidase IV, (DPP IV), plays the key role in breaking down casein and gluten, and is often found to be deficient in children on the autism spectrum.  When purchasing digestive enzymes, parents may want to check that this particular enzyme is included.  Enzymes should be given a little before or during any substantial meal, although some parents also give them at snack time.  Most come in capsule form, and these can often be opened and the enzymes sprinkled on the food.


This is a little off-topic, but I found it interesting.  A recent study seems to implicate low levels of DPP IV with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  This study found levels of casomorphin (the derivative of casein that I spoke about earlier), to be much higher in the blood of infants who had experienced near-SIDS episodes.  These same babies also had low levels of DPP IV.  This study was very small and very preliminary, but it definitely illustrates the harmful effects of casomorphin in small children. This is also another important reason to breastfeed as long as possible.

About Lori R. Edwards

I am the proud mommy of a wonderful little boy who has been diagnosed with Autism. We are currently working on his recovery.
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One Response to Gluten, Casein, Leaky Gut, and Digestive Enzymes

  1. jessiep says:

    Thank you for posting this! I was so confused by my sons results of high casomorphin peptides in his urine and was told by our holistic pediatrician to avoid dairy, soy, gluten for 3 months. That’s it. Nothing about leaky gut and trying to heal that. I just assumed it was an “allergy”. The doc didn’t recommend any changes other than the avoidance of the above items. I’m glad I started everyone on GAPS based on my own research. I feel like the combination of changes will help us!

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