The keto diet shows a lot of potential in helping children with autism improve cognitive ability, behavior challenges, social skill, and overall health.
Many parents are finding the keto diet has helped their child with autism improve in many ways. From better language and learning to improved health and sleep, the ketogenic diet shows a lot of promise for kids with autism.
In this post: you will learn how keto can help your child with autism.
7 Ways Keto Can Help Autism
- Stabilizing blood sugar
- Providing a more consistent energy supply to the brain and the rest of the body
- Lowering oxidative stress and prevent free radical damage
- Reducing excitotoxicity of neurons by stimulating the glutamate to GABA conversion
- Helping fight viral infections
- Stimulating autophagy (cellular cleanout)
- Reducing inflammation
But First, What Is Keto?
If you are new to keto, you’re probably wondering what exactly is the ketogenic diet.
Keto is a high fat, low carb diet with moderate protein. Your body uses fats and converts them into what are called ketones. Ketones are the molecules produced from fat in the absence of glucose, which can be used for energy.
The general guidelines for a ketogenic diet is to keep your intake of carbs and sugar to a minimum (20-30g) while eating moderate amounts of protein.
Essentially, keto is a way of eating that triggers your body to use fat for energy instead of sugar, carbs, or protein. Don’t worry, keto is safe for kids as long as you do it right.
How Does Keto Help Autism?
Lowers Sugar Consumption
One of the obvious ways keto can help kids with autism is because this diet dramatically reduces the amount of sugar our kids consume.
Sugar can really wreak havoc on your health, and lowering the amount of carbs and sugar our kids eat is a good goal for almost every parent.
Effects Of Sugar
- Unstable blood sugar/insulin
- Affects learning and cognition
- Slows down the immune system
- Feeds bad gut microbes
- Can damage proteins inside the body (called glycation)
- Is addicting
Blood Sugar Stability
All parents have experienced the pain of a hyperactive kid on a sugar high only to be followed by the inevitable crash shortly after.
Both the high blood sugar and the low blood sugar can lead to declines in cognitive performance and cause unwanted behaviors.
When you follow a keto diet, you never consume sugar on its own. Almost everything is combined with fat or protein. This slows the absorption of sugar preventing the spikes and crashes.
Plus, you’re eating much less sugar to begin with and avoiding all those other deleterious effects.
Keto And Autism And Energy
Most people use sugar/carbs as their primary fuel source, but ketones are a more efficient fuel source because they produce more ATP in fewer steps than glucose.
80% of kids with autism have mitochondrial dysfunction, and they often have blocks or deficits in the energy production process. Ketones can bypass those blocks allowing for a more consistent source of energy.
Oxidative stress is another common problem for kids with autism and a lot of that stress and free radicals are due to inefficient energy production inside the mitochondria. Typically, ketones convert to energy much more cleanly and do not result in as many free radicals.
So, not only does keto offer a consistent energy supply, it also lowers overall inflammation and oxidative stress.
Ketones are a better source of energy for the mitochondria, and they produce fewer reactive oxidative species (free radicals).
Keto And Autism And The Brain
While most cells of the body utilize glucose and fatty acids for energy, the brain can use an alternative source that you probably never heard of, lactate.
Lactate is the preferred energy source for rapidly firing neurons because its conversion to ATP (energy) is much faster than glucose. However, if lactate isn’t sufficient to sustain the neuron’s energy needs, you’ll end up with a deficiency in ATP.
When there’s not enough ATP on board, you will see inconsistent cognitive performance.
Perhaps, this might explain why our kids seem to do so well one day but appear foggy or “out of it” the next.
Why Ketones Are Better For The Brain
Ketones offer another source of energy that may be even better than lactate for the brain and nervous system.
They are neuroprotective and prevent oxidative stress from damaging vulnerable neurons by reducing the amount of free radicals that are created in the first place.
Again, ketones provide a more consistent energy supply, and that’s likely one reason we see improvements in various cognitive areas for our kids with autism.
- Better processing
- A ‘lifting of the fog”
- Social and behavior improvements
- Better focus and learning
- Language Improvements
- And much more
Glutamate is an important neurotransmitter that is excitatory. As long as glutamate is in balance with the calming neurotransmitter, it’s not a problem. However, many kids with autism have trouble clearing glutamate. This can lead to too much glutamate.
When glutamate is in excess, it can present in a wide variety of symptoms and will inevitably lead to mitochondrial dysfunction and possibly cell death.
Excess Glutamate Symptoms
- Anxiety, OCD
- Sleep issues
- Stimming and/or tics
- Delays in language
- Trouble learning & long term memory
- And much more
Ketones appear to help regulate the GABA/Glutamate balance by facilitating the conversion of glutamate to GABA. By increasing GABA you can help calm your child and improve many of these symptoms.
Keto And Autism And Infection
Ketones & Viral Infections
Many kids with autism show elevated markers for various viral infections like Epstein Barr, HSV 1*, HSV 2*, & HHV 6* (*all forms of the Herpes virus). These viruses can lie dormant for years while still impairing the body and causing inflammation.
Viruses can even insert themselves into DNA and RNA and quietly drive numerous health symptoms like brain inflammation and many of the cognitive impairments we see in our kids with autism.
Ketones may stabilize the mitochondrial DNA and improve some of those symptoms.
Keto & Viral Protection
There is some evidence that the keto diet may offer an extra line of defense against viral infections.
One study in particular (done on mice) showed that most of the “keto mice” did not get sick at all when exposed to the flu virus. At the same time, the non keto mice all died.
While the current research is thin in this area, it’s conceivable that a ketogenic diet would provide extra security against viral threats as well as other microbial threats.
In addition to reducing the food of most microbes (sugar), keto reduces inflammation thereby allowing the immune system to be better equipped to handle infections.
Keto & Autophagy
Autophagy is essentially the process of taking out the trash, but on a cellular level. Typically, this works best if you’re not still eating every few hours.
In the absence of various nutrients, the cell essentially says, “hey let me eat some of these damaged proteins and fats for fuel and do some other “housekeeping” while I wait for my next meal.
That is essentially what autophagy is, but that’s not the only benefits of autophagy.
Benefits Of Autophagy
- Cellular clean out
- Builds stem cells
- Reduces inflammation
- Turns on antioxidant systems
- Improves brain function
- and more
Autophagy happens when the body is running on ketones, so keto can improve your child’s health and reduce whatever their “symptoms” may be.
Keto And Autism
As you can see, there’s no doubt that keto has the ability to help children with autism, and many parents are experiencing those benefits first-hand.
In fact, I have a friend who’s family improved so much with the ketogenic diet that she decided to make it a big focus on her blog.
She also has an online Keto Family Class that teaches parents how to make this switch. It includes meal plans, grocery guides, recipes, and a whole lot more.
If you’re interested in going keto as a family, Cara can help you get there.
7 Ways The Keto Diet Helps Autism (Share on Pinterest)
- Ketone Bodies in Neurological Diseases: Focus on Neuroprotection and Underlying Mechanisms
- Potential Therapeutic Use of the Ketogenic Diet in Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Studies Show Efficacy of Keto for Autism
- Ketogenic Diet and GABA Connection, Gut Health, Brain Fog
- Ketogenic diet helps tame flu virus
- Ketogenic diet versus gluten free casein free diet in autistic children: a case-control study