How Diet Plays Significant Role in Managing Autism
Children with Autism are often at high risk of significant nutritional deficiencies, metabolic imbalances and digestive problems due to feeding problems and unusual eating patterns. Nutrition intervention is crucial for the prevention of brain damage and subsequent developmental and intellectual problems.
Dr. Walid Qoronfleh, Director of Research and Policy Development at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), a global initiative of Qatar Foundation, has addressed this topic in a book titled Personalized Food Intervention and Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder Management, that he co-edited and authored with Dr. Mohamed Essa, Associate Professor of Nutrition at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), Muscat, Oman.
The collaboration on the book between WISH and SQU started in 2017, and WISH has described Dr. Qoronfleh’s book as a valuable contribution to Qatar’s drive to improve public health and pioneer precision medicine It also represents a continuation of work already carried out by WISH to raise public awareness of precision medicine and Autism.
How long did you collaborate with Dr. Essa from Sultan Qaboos University on this project in order to complete it?
I had the idea for the book in November 2017 while attending a conference in Oman. I discussed it with my colleague Dr. Essa as we share similar research interests, since we know children with Autism are commonly at high risk of significant nutritional deficiencies, metabolic imbalances, and digestive problems due to feeding problems and unusual eating patterns.
In the spirit of the collaborative agreement between WISH and SQU, and also to build on the work of WISH in the sphere of Autism and precision medicine, we made a commitment to take on the book project. This took almost two years as we completed our book in December 2019, and it was first published online in mid-February 2020, while the hardcover book was launched in late March 2020. We also have other collaborations and publications together.
This book came out as a result of a comprehensive work plan and the efforts of many scientific and educational bodies locally, regionally and internationally. It was accomplished in partnership with Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman, and includes extensive inputs from Qatar Foundation’s Qatar Research Leadership Program - part of Qatar National Research Fund - Sidra Medicine and Hamad Bin Khalifa University, as well as Hamad Medical Corporation and Qatar University.
Individuals from non-scientific backgrounds don’t understand how ingested food and body chemistry could affect a mental disorder. Could you provide us with a brief explanation on how the cycle works in relation to Autism?
Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids found in food are a necessity for the proper development of a child's brain. Any deficiency in such nutrients can affect the production of neurotransmitters (nervous system signals) and disturb normal visual and cognitive processing (that is brain function). Nutrition intervention is crucial for the prevention of brain damage and subsequent developmental and intellectual problems, and thereby facilitates normal functioning.
How far could dietary modifications improve Autism symptoms or condition?
Studies have demonstrated significantly low levels of nutrients in blood, urine, hair and other tissues in children with Autism. Food and its bioactive phyto-compounds contain ingredients used in prevention, cure, and/or management of various diseases, including neurological disorders. The practice has taken hold in our society, and this wide acceptance emphasizes an integrative health approach that addresses body, mind, and spirit. For some individuals, a measurable improvement can be seen in their symptoms with nutritional intervention.
Is there a common recommended dietary plan to improve Autism in general or is it tailored on an individual basis?
People with Autism are known for their gastrointestinal dysfunctions. Various dietary approaches have been proposed and implemented to improve their symptoms and health conditions. Nutritional intervention involving diet elimination such as the casein-free/gluten-free diet, the ketogenic diet, specific carbohydrate diet, yeast-free diet, low oxalate diet, in addition to the restriction of food allergens, is offered. Also, the use of nutritional supplements (fatty acids, vitamins and minerals), probiotics, and phytochemicals can be beneficial.
Understanding the metabolic profile of the individual as part of the diagnosis is extremely helpful. If imbalances in metabolism are revealed, this information may be used to inform treatment that is more precise. Preliminary research suggests, for example, that adding or removing certain foods or supplements may be beneficial for some of these children.
The premise of this book, based on an extensive body of literature and research, is that to succeed, the dietary plan must be personalized and tailored to the individual.
Could the diet of an expecting mother cause a risk of Autism to her baby?
Varied prenatal risk factors may increase a child's susceptibility to Autism. The diet and nutrition of expectant mothers may increase the risk of Autism as it affects brain development). For example, nutritional status (malnutrition, deficiency in essential nutrients like folic acid), contaminated food (neurotoxic compounds), medication, the mother’s mental health, and environmental factors such as exposure to air pollution, exposure to chemicals and plastics, hazardous solvents and metals, can all be major contributors to increasing the odds of Autism.
What are your hopes for the future of efforts to tackle Autism in Qatar?
One of the plans I’m intending to execute in the near future is to simplify the scientific material of this book into a user-friendly Arabic book – a quick guide – which families where someone has Autism can use to help in a better management of the symptoms and sleeping patterns, as well as to gain knowledge and familiarize themselves with the best dietary recommendations to achieve this.
My hope for the future of efforts to address Autism in Qatar is for families to have better knowledge about the best therapeutic practices for the condition; to understand that, although there is no final proven cure for Autism, it can still be managed to a certain level that can help control the symptoms of the case and therefore gain some relief for the whole family. And this can be fulfilled through applying an inclusive treatment approach which consists of educational intervention, behavioral treatment, and developmental therapies, in addition to dietary and nutritional intervention when recommended.
To sum it up, when we are pursuing an integrative health approach that addresses body, mind, and spirit, each dietary intervention is personalized and tailored to each case. It’s worth mentioning that such therapeutic approaches may be less expensive, easier to implement, and better tolerated, with fewer side effects than pharmaceutical interventions.
Finally, from a social perspective, I hope there will be more awareness among individuals on how to embrace the Autism community and understand more about their abilities as well as their needs.
What are the responses to the book so far?
The online version of the book, launched in mid-February, has sold over 9,000 copies in less than a two-month period. The hard copy version was launched towards the end of March and is also selling well, so we are very pleased with the overwhelming response on the book by the scientific community.
To my knowledge, the book is the first on Precision Medicine to be produced in Qatar, and also the first in the biomedical/clinical area from a Qatar Foundation employee and indeed from the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH).
Moreover, due to the importance of the intersection of the book’s two main topics - precision medicine and Autism - it will be considered for an international award nomination according to its publisher, Springer.
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