The food connection for children and behaviour

Published on June 10, 2014


Recently, I introduced the topic of gut health and its connection to overall health. This week I would like to elaborate on the link between gut health and behavioural issues in children.

ADD/ADHD, autism and other behavioural issues are whole-body disorders and the digestion-brain connection is one of the most important areas for parents to understand. The foods that children eat directly impact what happens in their brain, and thus food choices can have a direct effect on behaviour.

Our digestive system, as I outlined in an earlier article, is the interface between the outside world (the external environment) and the inside world of the body. It is responsible for breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and acting as a ‘first-line of defence’ for our immune system.

When our digestive system is functioning at 100 per cent, only very small food particles are allowed to be absorbed from the intestines into the bloodstream. When the digestive system and immune systems are not functioning well our intestinal lining becomes too "leaky," allowing large food particles and toxins to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. These "leaks" in our gut cause our immune system to become overwhelmed, further weakening its digestive function. This can lead to the development of food allergies and sensitivities, and general symptoms such as: “brain fog,” fatigue, joint inflammation, bloating, skin rashes, constipation/diarrhea, hyperactivity, memory problems and difficulty with concentration.

Many studies report that children with ADD/ADHD and autism often have a genetic susceptibility to digestive problems, including intestinal leakage (aka Leaky Gut). Specifically, many of these children lack the enzyme that allows them to break down the peptides (subunits of proteins) from gluten and casein. As a result, these large and improperly digested proteins are absorbed in the intestines, travel through the bloodstream and to the brain. When this happens, the gluten and casein peptides act as opioid-like substances and can be responsible for such things as poor attention, odd behaviour, and deficits in socialization and language skills.

Gluten is a protein found in foods processed from wheat and related grains, including barley and rye. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape, and often gives the final product a chewy texture. Casein is a protein commonly found in milk. Casein has a wide variety of uses, from being a major component of cheese and also as a food additive.

Removing gluten and casein from a child’s diet initially can be a difficult adjustment for the family. However, it is worth the effort as these dietary changes can make a significant difference in a child’s behaviour, e.g. reducing inattentiveness and hyperactivity, increasing a child’s ability to concentrate and interact more appropriately with their environment, and decreasing digestive issues.

The cornerstone of treatment focuses on healing the digestive system by removing offending foods, replacing necessary vitamins and enzymes, restoring the beneficial bacteria that are commonly found in a normal digestive system, and healing the leaky gut. Please do not make drastic dietary changes without first consulting a qualified health professional who deals with diet and nutrition. It is critical, especially in children, that all nutritional needs are met within a balanced diet.


Dr. Amy Punké, ND, has a naturopathic practice at Whole Self Wellness Centre, 106 Stellarton Rd., New Glasgow (above Health Selection). Visit or call 902-755-1210.