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21 and Atypical: Food, Glorious Food!

IMG_5234“He stares as we bring over the food, picks up the plate, smells it and then if we’re lucky takes a tiny bite; and by tiny I mean that ants would probably carry a bigger bit than the amount he is willing to try. Then comes the silence – we hold our breath, fists clenching, heart racing all waiting to see if he approves of the dish.”  Christos has been eating the same 5 things for most of his life; pasta & tomato sauce, curry & rice, egg & lemon soup, chicken nuggets, toast. When Christos switched to the GFCF diet my dad – chef extraordinaire – jumped to action and created recipes which incorporated all the things Christos wouldn’t try but which were nutritionally essential to his diet. Read more about Christos eating habits on Best food critic in town!

Stephanos was always very choosy with food as well. In 21 and Atypical: Stephanos we described how he went from eating fruity, colourful and varied foods to being reluctant and sceptical of them! He stopped trying new foods around the age of 1. Instead, Stephanos switched to pale coloured foods with a mild palette; for example, Cerelac, plain biscuits, bananas. Fruits with textures or colours stopped appealing to his appetite. Once he was diagnosed he switched over the the GFCF diet.

The GFCF elimination diet requires that all foods containing gluten and casein are removed from the child’s daily food intake. Gluten can be found in wheat, oats, rye, barley, durum, bread, pasta, cereal, cookies, soups, sauces, candy etc. Casein can be found in dairy products in general; milk, butter, cheese, ice cream etc. 

Marilyn Le Breton, author of ‘Diet Intervention and Autism’ explains why the GFCF diet may be the key to unlocking autism: “When you eat, the food you consume is broken down in your stomach… In autistic people, the breakdown of two proteins present in some foods, gluten and casein, is not completed properly. The resulting fragments of these proteins are called peptides. Peptides are small enough to pass through the wall of the gut, rather than being processed in the normal way. As the peptides journey around the body, they make a pit stop at the brain, where they do untold damage before continuing their journey and finally making their way out of the body, via urine. Both are very similar to morphine, a highly addictive drug.” In 2018 the Microbiome Journal (here) published a study which claims that Microbiota Transfer Therapy (Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), also known as a stool transplant, is the process of transplantation of fecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a recipient) alters gut ecosystem and improves gastrointestinal and autism symptoms. – More on this in Hope in Poo .

For both the boys switching to this diet – in Cyprus 20 years ago – was incredibly difficult. Our family used to order and ship maize pasta from Italy, order specialist flour and bread to be baked at bakeries, pack a whole suitcase of suitable products to take on a month long holiday. My parents fought endlessly to convince him to eat these new products and, to some extent, it made a difference! He was less agitated, less tired and more responsive without gluten and cassein. Funnily enough, this year I have had to go on the same diet for health reasons. But now, everyone is falling over themselves to accommodate my dietary requirements. Now, we find it weird if we can’t find gluten-free products anywhere.

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I think back to cooking maize pasta and carrying it around in tupperware with grated halloumi in tin foil to take to restaurants or visits, the smell of egg and lemon soup in our room in the Maldives over a bunsen burner, all the packets of crisps my parents had to ration between the two of us to last him through the holiday. I think back and wonder how did we survive in a world that didn’t understand why we couldn’t just have ‘normal’ pasta? The answer is: parents. Their endless, relentless and ferocious attitude, resilience and unstoppable drive.

Today, Stephanos eats strawberries, salad vegetables and all kinds of colourful and flavoursome fruits. In fact,m the first time he tried a red strawberry he was 8 years old. Hi diet is varied and he doesn’t struggle to try new kinds of food at school or restaurants or even at home. Christos eats fish, meat, sauces and has no issue trying buffet options or airplane food.

The boys love food. In fact, they plan their day around it (just like you and me). Their body just digests food differently to some people. Following the GFCF diet as a neurotypical adult I have noticed so many advantages in my body, mood, mental health and my every day life. I don’t feel fatigued, bloated, grumpy, my skin is glowing, my hair is growing, my mind is alert and keen. Maybe the advantages of the GFCF diet are just a glimpse in the many, many things we all have in common.

#21andAtypical – but atypical according to whom?

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The Hominidae Family

I read a book recently called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – buy it immediately – and it changed. my. life. It made the world make a little bit of sense.

Yuval Noah Harari explains  how biology sets our limits and how culture shapes what happens within those bounds. He narrates humankind from the creation of the Homo genos to the ultimate dominance of the Sapiens species.

What is especially interesting is that we are a species of the genus Homo, which is the  genus of the family Hominidae (order Primates). Our characteristics include: large cranial capacity, limb structure adapted to a habitual erect posture and a bipedal gait, well-developed and fully opposable thumbs, hands capable of power and precision grips, and the ability to make standardized precision tools, using one tool to make another. For example, the biological family Felidae is a lineage of carnivorans colloquially referred to as cats. The species included in this family are panthers, cats, tigers etc.

So!

Sapiens (us) are a species of Hominidae together with the (allegendly) extinct species H. habilis, H. erectus, and H. heidelbergensis as well as the Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis), the early form of Homo sapiens called Cro-Magnon, and the enigmatic H. naledi, which may be the oldest known member of the genus.

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In fact, Sapiens and Neanderthals, H. erectus etc are likely to have existed in the world at the same time. We evolved at the same time as them. Neanderthal anatomy differed from modern humans in that they had a more robust build and distinctive morphological features including shorter limb proportions, a wider, barrel-shaped rib cage, a reduced chin, sloping forehead, and a large nose.

In 2010  a study was published which determined that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA and researchers of the Neanderthal Genome Project found that 2.5 percent of an average non-African human’s genome is made up of Neanderthal DNA. Which means that at some point, our species interbred and that Caucasians are more likely to have Neanderthal DNA.

From this study and further genotyping undertaken, Dannemann and Kelso published  “The contribution of Neanderthals to phenotypic variation in modern humans,” Am J Hum Genet, 101:1-12, 2017. They narrowed the sample to include 112,338 individuals with white European ancestry (whose genomes contain Neanderthal DNA), and used these data to tease out which traits are influenced by Neanderthal genetic variants. The traits they identified included those that affect hair color, skin color, skin tanning and burning, sleeping patterns, mood, and tobacco use. For example, being a self-described night owl and being prone to daytime napping were both traits positively influenced by Neanderthal variants, as were loneliness, low mood, and smoking. Genetic loci associated with having red hair were found to be devoid of Neanderthal variants, suggesting red-headed Neanderthals were either rare or non-existent. The new study also supports Capra and colleagues’ previous observations that Neanderthal variants are associated with sun-induced skin lesions, mood disorders, and smoking.”

Next time you’re tempted to call someone a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

What’s the point of this? Basically that we know nothing about who we are, what makes us. The only reason Sapiens went on to dominate the world was because of their unprecedented congnitive ability to imagine, and to believe in their imagination. They went on to imagine new ways to hunt, gather, cook. They imagined states, countries, borders. They imagined religion, human rights, corporations and money.

For millenia, our ancestors imagined things that control our lives, that give us the ability to research, understand and explain where we came from. Their imagination created the world you live in today.

And yet at the cognitive peak of our species, our generations are unable to create a world where we are all accepted because we can’t imagine people with disabilities living up to the culture and demands our society has conjured up.

At the core, we are simply a family that has different traits. If this is fact – why is it so hard to imagine?

In other science news:

Remember when we talked about the gut? Well, you may remember that the gut has always been under observation in autism study.

The Biology of Autism: Where Marilyn Le Breton explained that “When you eat, the food you consume is broken down in your stomach. The bits that are not used by the body are flushed out as waste matter. In autistic people, the breakdown of two proteins present in some foods, gluten and casein, is not completed properly. The resulting fragments of these proteins are called peptides. Peptides are small enough to pass through the wall of the gut, rather than being processed in the normal way. As the peptides journey around the body, they make a pit stop at the brain, where they do untold damage before continuing their journey and finally making their way out of the body, via urine. Both are very similar to morphine, a highly addictive drug.”

Hope in Poo? In 2017, a study was published in the Microbiome Journal (here) which claims that Microbiota Transfer Therapy (Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), also known as a stool transplant, is the process of transplantation of fecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a recipient) alters gut ecosystem and improves gastrointestinal and autism symptoms.

Building on the research above, new findings now have reinforced the theory that some autism symptoms – including behavioral symptoms – can be manipulated with FMT. In fact, the results appear to be long-lasting, continuing to have an effect even years after the fecal transplant.

The researchers presented a follow-up to this study at the Beneficial Microbes Conference this month. According to the reports, the scores on a gastrointestinal-symptom scale remained over 60% better before the transplants through maintaining beneficial bacteria gained from the transplant.

This breakthrough could be groundbreaking for the autism community. If we can understand the causes/origins of autism we can work towards mitigating effects and implementing precautionary tests. This isn’t a cure but it’s hope.

Happy summer my humans!