Ending Colic or Unnecessary Expense: Does going gluten-free offer widespread behavior and digestive benefits?
When Catherine Blackmon gave birth to her son Bo, she recalls, “He came out basically constantly screaming.” After a series of visits to the pediatrician, he was diagnosed with colic and reflux, conditions associated with otherwise healthy infants who experience cramping, stomach irritability and seemingly inexplicable crying fits. The doctor prescribed medicine for the baby, which assuaged his symptoms. Later, after weening him off the medicine, Blackmon took him to a chiropractor to have his diaphragm adjusted, further relieving his discomfort. It wasn’t until Blackmon’s next child, Hudson, suffered the same symptoms that she considered that the gluten in her diet might be contributing to her sons’ troubled tummies.
For Blackmon’s youngest, the diaphragm adjustments proved insufficient. What was more, Hudson had an persistent skin condition. “He was red from head to toe,” she says. That’s when Dr. Nicole Ussery, R.D., a chiropractor and dietician at Balance Chiropractic: A Wellness Studio in Vestavia, suggested that Blackmon cut all gluten — the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley — from her diet. Blackmon, who exclusively breastfed her sons, found that within a week the boy’s colicky and reflux symptoms had vanished. As for his complexion, “He had the most beautiful, clear baby skin you’ve ever seen,” she says.
For Ussery, the Blackmon family’s gluten-free transformation is a familiar story. Whether it’s parents with colicky babies, children confronting ADHD or autism or athletes who suffer from inflammation, Ussery has found widespread improvements in patients who have limited or completely cut their intake of gluten and dairy. “I haven’t had anyone who hasn’t had good results,” she says.
Ussery is not alone. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University Medical School surveyed nearly 400 parents and caregivers of autistic children last year, asking if a gluten-free diet improved both the behavioral and gastrointestinal symptoms associated with autism. The majority of respondents reported better language, social behavior and digestion. The research did not, however, guard against the parents’ potential bias or include any clinical study alongside the surveys.
Several physicians and medical researchers have expressed their skepticism about what they perceive as a potential overuse of the gluten-free diet. Eliminating gluten is the sole treatment for Celiac disease, but is not scientifically proven to treat other issues like colic or autism. Celiac is an autoimmune condition, where consuming gluten blocks the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine. The resulting symptoms include everything from diarrhea, gas and constipation, to a foggy mind, irritability and fatigue. While physicians do not doubt the gluten-free diet’s effectiveness when combating Celiac, they are less optimistic about the broader benefits sometimes ascribed to it.
Last year, the Annals of Internal Medicine published an article warning that the widespread adoption of a gluten-free diet by people without Celiac poses a potential social problem. The article’s authors, Antonio Di Sabatino and Gino Roberto Corazza, both physicians, argue that results attributed to going to gluten free might be better ascribed to healthier eating in general. For example, patients eating gluten free eliminate many processed and fast foods, and could be experiencing the benefits of a healthier diet not a problem with gluten. Without proper medical testing, Sabatino and Corazza argue that patients adopting a gluten-free diet often incur unnecessary expenses when trying to adhere to the restrictive diet. (Gluten-free flour, for example, generally costs four times the amount of wheat flour.)
Ussery argues that the connection between cutting gluten and eliminating fast and processed foods identifies why limiting gluten is part of healthy eating. She emphasizes that a balanced diet, heavy on fruits, vegetables, meat and nuts avoids all manner of unhealthy eating, while also being naturally gluten-free and more affordable.
Reed Dimmitt, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the UAB School of Medicine, sees the positive experiences of Ussery and her patients as inroads for additional research, but not conclusive evidence for recommended healthcare practices in and of themselves. With colic, he explains, physicians are increasingly identifying it as a challenge with self-soothing, not a gastrointestinal problem. What is more, Dimmitt sees a potential nutritional challenge, where low-income families would not be able to afford enough food if they were told to unnecessarily adopt a gluten-free diet.
Not wanting to take away from the seemingly positive results Ussery, Blackmon and other families have identified, Dimmitt says, “There is not a downside if they want to try this.” But their results, he is careful to explain, should be interpreted as potential hypotheses for clinical studies, and not be as cause for the widespread elimination of gluten from people’s diets.
If physicians express skepticism about the scientific validity of Blackmon’s experience, she does not doubt the gluten-free diet’s usefulness. Fad or not, she says, “when my child is screaming and in pain, I’ll do anything to try to stop it.” Her son’s improved health offered sufficient proof for her.