Book Review: Enzymes for Autism

Enzymes for Autism and Other Neurological Conditions (Updated Third Edition) by Karen DeFelice is a guide to understanding how digestive enzymes work and how to use them to treat a wide array of neurological and physical and ailments. (**Note: I read the first edition.**) DeFelice presents case studies, anecdotal evidence and technical explanations as evidence of how digestive enzymes can be used to treat autism, sensory dysfunction, migraines, ADHD, food intolerances and chemical sensitivity, bowel dysfunctions and even viruses and cancer. DeFelice, a mother of two with a research/science background, also shares her own journey away from chronic migraines to better health with enzymes. In the book’s three appendices you’ll find a guide to buying enzymes, a detailed analysis of the book’s data and a frequently asked questions section. If you are considering enzyme therapy, this book is a must read.

DeFelice’s point of view is that since science has uncovered various biological aspects to autism and related conditions, it is worth looking into treatments that address the individual’s biology. She also provides clear explanations of how the digestive and the immune systems work, making it easier to understand how food intolerances happen and how enzymes may help. She proposes that faulty digestion is at the root of many sensory and behavioral problems and makes a clear distinction between a food allergy (IgE antibody response) and a food sensitivity (IgG antibody response) when she discusses the immune system. An IgG antibody response is triggered when undigested food particles pass into the bloodstream.

The immune system reacts to these unknown particles by sending in the IgG antibodies to deal with them. IgG antibody reactions can be just as serious as the histamine reactions, although maybe not as obviously connected to a particular food or chemical. Symptoms of IgG reactions usually show up as changes in behavior rather than histamine reactions. People refer to these as food intolerances or sensitivities instead of true allergies.

… As long as your body processes out the food or chemicals quicker than [they build] up, there is no reaction. p. 61

DeFelice also goes into detail about how enzymes heal the gut through the breaking down of food particles, and help clear out environmental toxins by latching onto them and leaving the body. This relieves some of the burden on the liver and immune system.

Digestive enzymes also relieve burdens placed on the pancreas, whose job is to create digestive enzymes to break down foods that don’t have natural enzymes left. When we eat a diet full of cooked and processed foods, we get very few of the natural enzymes from those foods. This means our bodies must produce the enzymes needed to digest the cooked food. Our bodies secrete digestive enzymes mainly from the pancreas and a few other locations in the digestive tract. The more digestive enzymes our bodies need to produce, the greater the stress is on the pancreas. Because the body needs to create these digestive enzymes, it uses precursors and raw materials that could be used for other functions. p. 88

According to the book’s data, many parents saw marked improvements in their children’s behavior in addition to relief from physical reactions to “problem foods” as well. Improvements were seen in over 31 areas such as increased language, improved sleep, even improved transitioning when changing activities.

After repeatedly seeing Enzymes for Autism at my Occupational Therapist’s office, I decided to pick it up when I noticed that Sweet Coco seemed to have problems with eating dairy. He would get a serious red rash as well as have eczema patches on the insides of his elbow. He would wake in the middle of the night scratching his itchy skin. I mostly thought of using enzymes as a “just in case” tool for if/when he came into accidental contact with it. I was intrigued to learn that while some people do use them in this way, many people use the enzymes as a way to help digest “problem foods” without a negative reaction and thereby eliminate the need for a restrictive diet. It also hadn’t occurred to me that digestive enzymes are useful in removing toxins and metals from the body as well.

DeFelice addresses the concerns of those who view “problem foods” as poison because of the reactions they may cause in those who have trouble digesting them:

“With a[n] injured or malfunctioning digestive system, any food could be called ‘poison’. The view is that it is better to fix the faulty system, not focus entirely on eliminating foods. An example is the widely acknowledged point that gluten and casein proteins are not hazardous as proteins, nor are they harmful when completely broken down. The proteins are only problematic when digestion happens to be faulty, and the intermediate peptides happen to form, and happen to pass into the bloodstream, and happen to cause an unwanted reaction of some type. They are not even harmful to all people with autism.” p. 260

I opened the gel capsules and mixed the enzymes into a teaspoon of jelly, gave it to Sweet Coco and had him drink water afterwards (DeFelice also goes into extensive detail about the various ways to give your child enzymes if he/she can’t swallow capsules.) I began giving him enzymes once a day for a week and built up to giving them at each meal. I noticed a major improvement in his skin after two days. The frequent scratching stopped as well. The eczema cleared up the next week. I also noticed that if Sweet Coco would have an accidental contamination (like finishing off his brother’s cereal without me noticing in time) the rash would come back by the next day. It was very clear after experiencing this a few times that the enzymes were in fact doing what DeFelice purported them to do. I also noticed that Sweet Coco’s habit of crying and screaming when he wanted something mellowed significantly and he was making more verbal requests instead.

When I saw how well Sweet Coco reacted to enzymes, I gave them to Tremendo and Kamikaze as well. I noticed increased speech on days when Tremendo had enzymes and both kids’ therapists commented on how much more attentive, engaged, organized and communicative they were in therapy. These observations were shared with me even though I hadn’t told them that I’d started giving the boys enzymes.

Those of you reading who have had success with gluten-free casein-free diets may be wondering if I’d tried going that route before the enzymes. The short answer is yes. Tremendo and Sweet Coco were gluten free for two years, before I discovered an NAET practitioner and had all three of my children treated for their food sensitivities to gluten, dairy and other foods.

Before NAET when an accidental contamination occurred, Tremendo would have trouble sleeping and throw tantrums that could last for hours. His head banging abruptly ended after being gluten free as well. Although that was difficult, the most disturbing effect of getting contaminated with gluten was that he would stop speaking for an entire week. In any case having found the restrictive diet very confining, expensive and myself imperfect in my ability to implement it, I was very glad to have an alternative. Enzymes were a total blessing for me when I lost contact with the NAET practitioner who had treated my children and Sweet Coco’s issues with dairy resurfaced.

DeFelice mentions that digestive enzymes taken on an empty stomach help sports injuries heal faster too. My husband banged his elbow moving furniture and it swelled with fluid to the point that it was getting in the way of natural movement. After weeks, we were slightly baffled that it hadn’t gotten smaller and he aggressively started taking enzymes. After 2-3 weeks of building up to taking 4 capsules daily and using an icepack on it, the swelling was gone. We noticed that it got slightly smaller and then it seemed to disappear overnight once he got up to 4 capsules. I also noticed more weight loss on days that I took digestive enzymes on an empty stomach. I am so impressed with enzymes after our experiences that they’ll be a regular part of the whole family’s diet.

In reading other reviews about this book there appeared to be few criticisms. The main one seemed to be the lack of scientific data to back up the claims that DeFelice was making specifically about digestive enzymes’ effect on autism and neurological conditions. I feel that DeFelice did the best she could toward that end with an explanation of the surveys and data gathered in the book’s appendix. Yes, it is true that the sample was one in which the parents were invested in the enzymes working but one can’t always wait for an official study to validate things for us. We’re living our lives now and our lives have been much improved since adding enzymes into our diet.

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