Dr. Katherine Reid with her daughter, Brooke. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

What’s a mother to do when her three-year-old daughter is diagnosed with autism? Well, if you’re a biochemist like Dr. Katherine Reid, Ph.D, you’ll probably end up researching everything you can about the developmental disorder, and maybe even beginning your therapy in the aisles of the grocery store.

By asking the question what are we eating?, Reid claims she’s been able to completely manage her daughter Brooke’s autism. What we put into our bodies, she says, can have profound effects on our brains.

“Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, which means that there are so many different areas of the brain that it hits, and how it manifests itself in each child is different,” says Reid.
Some of the overarching characteristics of the disorder, though, include communication and social impairments, seizure-like behavior, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Brooke, diagnosed at age three as “moderate” on the spectrum, suffered from all of the above.

“It was difficult to integrate her into any mainstream setting,” says Reid. “Even like going to a park, because you just didn’t know if this seizure-like behavior was going to flare up and it was really hard to explain.”

Three years later, Brooke has improved so much that she was taken out of special needs school, and she’s functioning well in mainstream kindergarten. “She’s now the most social kid out of the five children,” says Reid, who credits the success to a total reinvention of her daughter’s diet, and the removal of one ubiquitous ingredient: monosodium glutamate.

The journey to the MSG discovery began with the addition of nutritional supplements like magnesium, Vitamin D3, Omega 3 Fish oil and B-Complex vitamins. “I observed eye contact coming back, and minor improvements, but still autistic, still special needs, not functioning very well in the mainstream environment,” says Reid.

Her next step was an approach popular among parents of autistic children, but with unreliably mixed results: a diet free of gluten and casein, a milk protein added to many foods. Again, Brooke showed slight improvements. But it wasn’t until she took it one step further that Brooke’s seizures and sensory distortions, or extreme sensitivity to light and sound, were completely alleviated.

“I found that gluten and casein weren’t the only thing that I needed to remove,” says Reid, who read in a blog that she also needed to be careful with MSG. “And at that point I was like who is feeding their kids MSG?”

As it turns out: everybody.

“I was shocked. It’s all over the place in our foods, and it’s not being labeled as monosodium glutamate, it’s being labeled as almost healthy things, as natural flavors, for instance. So you can have a food labeled 100% organic, all natural, no MSG added and still, that food item contain a significant amount of MSG,” says Reid.

It’s the “free glutamate” in MSG, produced when gluten, casein and other proteins are processed, that are slipping into almost every processed food out there, including juices, flavored teas, and even toothpaste. It appears in “natural foods” as protein powders, yeast extract, hydrolyzed proteins, extracted proteins and other forms, and it’s added not as a preservative, says Reid, but to make us think that food tastes better.

“It actually doesn’t have any taste in and of itself, but it’s a chemical that’s causing a brain reaction that’s making us think it tastes good,” says Reid. “It’s binding to the glutamate receptor, and it’s exciting our neurons.”

And for the autistic brain, which is already hyper-stimulated, it can wreak havoc, says Reid.

“Once we became aware of the marketing gimmick going on here and the disguise, and removing it really ended up removing a lot of processed foods, she was a new kid,” says Reid, whose shopping list is now made up of primarily fruits, vegetables, organic meats, and raw nuts and seeds.

“It just reduced the noise, the light was no longer an issue, any room sound that was going on didn’t bother her, and she was able to absorb like a sponge,” says Reid.

Interestingly enough, pharmaceutical drugs currently in clinical trial for treating autism and other brain disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease, block the glutamate receptors in the brain.