Autism gut brain connection

Autism is a developmental disorder that starts in early childhood and affects the child’s ability to communicate, form relationships, and difficulties with language. It is considered to have an unknown cause but in the US the cases of autism have been skyrocketing in the last couple decades.

The latest estimate of autism prevalence—1 in 68—is up 30 percent from the 1 in 88 rate reported in 2008, and more than double the 1 in 150 rate in 2000. In fact, the trend has been steeply upward since the early 1990s.

What does autism look like in young children?

Autism typically presents by age 3, and most of the time the child is evaluated due to delays in talking, not acting like their peers, or losing skills (especially language) that they previously had.  Stimming, or repetitive vocalizations or movements, is also commonly seen with autism, as well as low-to-no eye contact, difficulty understanding other people’s feelings, and narrow interests.

There is no blood test or culture to test for autism. Like many other disorders and syndromes, diagnosis is done by trained professionals that follow a set of diagnostic criteria outlined in the DSM-5 (source).

What are the conventional treatments for autism?

Conventionally, autism is treated with:

  • Behavioral treatments
  • Speech and occupational therapies as needed
  • Medications if the needs arise, usually for sleeping, anxiety, and depression

How could treating the gut help autism?

There are a few ways that the gut is involved in autism.

  • First, the gut (and really our whole body) is lined with a colony of bacteria.
    When the body is healthy and working well, we have beneficial bacteria that keep the opportunistic pathogenic bacteria held back.
    The beneficial bacteria also work with the wall of the gut to make enzymes for food digestion, stimulate cell regeneration, and help with immune function.
  • Our good bacteria are able to crowd out the bad bacteria before they take root, much like a ground cover in your yard crowds out the weeds and prevents them from taking hold.  When this balance of good-to-bad bacteria is off, the bad bacteria take over our guts.
  • With this, the bad bacteria actually secrete chemicals as part of their metabolic process. These chemicals go through the gut wall and into the bloodstream, and can act like drugs in our brain.  This can manifest as intense sugar cravings, brain fog, depression, or, as we’re talking about today, autism.

    That spacey look that my daughter had, with no interest in engaging with the people around her? That looked so much like I would imagine opium looks (I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen someone on opium).  The raging meltdowns from overstimulation? That looks similar to what I’ve seen from people using meth.  That’s how powerful these signals from the gut flora are.

  • Second, there is brain tissue in your gut. There are about 500 million neurons (source) in your gut.  These neurons help control your digestion, and they also work with your brain for your physical and mental well being.  Your stress level directly impacts your gut, and can even cause your gut to be leaky (read more here).
  • Third, lack of nutrients being absorbed by your gut create nutrient deficiencies in your body.  When the body does not have the nutrients it needs to run the all-powerful brain, some systems get out of whack.
  • Fourth, because so much of the detoxification system of our body is housed in our gut, when our gut health is not in good shape, we get a backup of toxins.  Like the pathogenic bacteria, these toxins can once again re-enter the bloodstream, and affect our brain.  In a healthy gut mild toxin exposure is easily accommodated for by the body, but in a damaged gut, we are unable to detoxify as well.

What about vaccines and autism?

None of my children have been vaccinated, so clearly I’m not in the ‘if nobody vaccinated, there wouldn’t be autism’ camp.  I do think that for a child with a damaged gut, and/or genetic susceptibility, vaccines are more likely to cause harm. That’s why I’ve chosen to avoid vaccines in my whole family, I believe we’re at risk for adverse reactions.

It’s easy for people who don’t have affected children to shout that there is no correlation between vaccines and autism, but both the rate of vaccines and the rate of autism has increased over the last generation. In addition, since we are involved in the special needs community, I have heard many mothers talk about their child changing within hours or days of a vaccine, particularly the MMR.

Vaccine injury is real, though so is disease, so it’s up to each parent to read up on the statistics of how prevalent and dangerous each disease is, how effective the vaccine has been proven to be, and any concerns about adverse reactions.  (hint: there are very very few deaths or disabilities from so-called vaccine-preventable diseases in the US, despite thousands of children in each state being unvaccinated due to philosophical, religious, or medical reasons.)

Why the MMR?

I don’t believe that the MMR vaccine is likely to cause problems in a normally healthy child or adult, but when combined with an underlying gut-health issue, it’s what tips them over the edge.  There is a small study that shows the measles virus residing in the guts of children with autism more often than children without autism (source), which might suggest that there is an immune or toxic response (a large part of the immune and toxin-elimination system is in the gut) within the gut to the MMR vaccine.

MMR is also given at about 18 months, the time when many children who have regressive autism start to present with it, so whether MMR is tipping them into regression, or they naturally are more prone to regression at this particular time, is something that needs to be considered as well.

What about antibiotics?

While I think that vaccines are likely to cause regressive autism, which is easy to pinpoint, I think that antibiotics are actually more to blame than vaccines for autism in general. I also believe that antibiotics are most likely to be the reason for my daughter having autism. As children born in the 80s, many of us were on antibiotics frequently as children.

Our gut flora is damaged, and while we may be unaffected by it (though we might be affected by it in a more minor form than severe developmental delays), when it is what is passed to our newborns, the pathogenic opportunistic bacteria just take too fast of a hold in their little gut at a time when immense development and growth is happening.

Why is autism on the rise?

Our health is a mess.

For real.

It’s not just autism, but eczema, asthma, food allergies, celiac’s disease, autoimmune disease, obesity, diabetes…

We’ve let our health go for too many generations. What may have worked for one generation, which was born to parents who ate whole foods and didn’t have depleted gut flora due to antibiotic use and obsessions with antibacterially sanitizing everything is not going to work for all the generations going forward.

It’s up to us to change the tide, and start paying attention to what we put on our children, what we feed them, and what they’re breathing.

Once we can start healing our kids from the inside out, I’m hoping that we can start to turn the autism statistics around so they start going down.

“All disease begins in the gut.” – Hippocrates

How to start balancing the gut to heal autism

First we may need to start with supplements to correct nutrient deficiencies and try to temper the stress-causing leaky gut and leaky-gut-causing-anxiety cycle.  I had good success with True Calm, an amino acid and herb blend (you can find this here).  I also recommend cod liver oil to give the body easily absorbed fatty acids that the brain thrives on (more about cod liver oil here).  My daughter saw calming benefits from L-Carnosine, which is also an amino acid. You can find L-Carnosine here.

We also need to make healthy changes to our homes and reduce our toxic load – these are pretty basic steps but can make a big difference. Click here to get a free printable checklist for a 30-day plan to get this started in simple steps

Next, we try an elimination diet. It’s so common that removing foods that often are allergy-causing, inflammation-causing, and cause a leaky gut.  Removing dairy and/or gluten will most often relieve symptoms drastically.  And then we can work our way back to really healing our gut with the GAPS diet. (click here for more information on working backwards to the GAPS diet)

Then once we are stabilized and eliminating common allergens from our diet, we can work on restoring gut flora balance and healing the gut. Most importantly, we clean up the gut.  (click here for the GAPS intro diet for gut healing and sealing)

Probiotics can help, be sure to go slow – we’ll be introducing these beneficial bacteria, which will in turn kill off the bad ones – when this happens we can experience a rush of symptoms, so it’s important to go slowly (these are the probiotics that I use, be sure to read this precaution first)

When the gut flora is balanced, our children’s digestion improves, their moods stabilize, and the fog is lifted so they start to want to learn and interact with others.

 What else?

In most cases of developmental delays or autism, I think that more than one approach is needed. In our experience, dietary changes and probiotic heal the gut, but there are other things that need to be addressed as well.

After 2 years on the GAPS diet we looked for other methods to help with increased healing.

When Hannah woke up on the 3rd day after removing gluten and casein (wheat and dairy) from her diet, we saw evidence of a miracle.

She was three, and before this miracle she had never made good eye contact, had epic meltdowns, sensory issues prevented her from being able to do something as simple as errands without being completely overwhelmed.  She was obsessed with opening and closing doors and poking eyes, and didn’t care at all about shared experiences with her family members or peers.  And sleep… for 3 years she had slept in 2-hour stretches, as a baby she nursed all.night.long and once she was weaned at age 2, she was up for at least an hour in the middle of the night every night.

Though she hadn’t been diagnosed yet, she easily met the diagnostic criteria for autism.  And though I was an overwhelmed 26-year old mom with two little ones, I knew I had to try dietary intervention.  I had heard that it can help, even heard miracle stories with the word ‘cure’ in them.  I was skeptical, and totally overwhelmed, but we tried it.

After being dairy and wheat free (strictly) for 3 days, she woke up making eye contact, sharing experiences, slept through the night, stopped obsessively opening and closing all the cupboards in the house. She willingly held my hand as we crossed the parking lot to go to Big Lots.

I was relieved, I had found a way to help my child when the only solutions so far had been occupational and speech therapies – where I wasn’t seeing much progress at all.

It was amazing. But then she regressed, and was steadily heading back to where she was prior to starting GFCF.  I tried being more strict, but was without success.

Desperately I googled what to do when GFCF stops working with autism, and I came across the gut-autism connection, and how symptoms like she had originate in the gut, not the brain.  

Depending on symptoms, you may be able to modify this protocol and still see great results; possibly just removing gluten, any known allergens (often eggs, wheat, or dairy), and increasing probiotics for a time.

gut-brain-autism connection

How did this work for us?

Encouraged by our initial success with just eliminating gluten and casein, I ventured onto the GAPS diet the next month. We did full GAPS for a month, and then went to the GAPS Introduction Diet the month after.  Rather than getting worse, she slowly but surely got better.

We went through intro once a year, but otherwise did the full GAPS diet, which includes more of a variety of foods. During on of our times going through intro, I noticed that she was doing better when we were low carb, so she was actually fruit and honey-free (low carb) on GAPS for over a year. After a year of not being able to come off this stage, I looked to other healing methods as listed above.

The words ‘cure’ and ‘autism’ are touchy, and I’m fully expecting some kind of backlash from this post.  In our case, Hannah lost her autism diagnosis and no longer displays the symptoms that children with autism display.  She does still have learning disabilities, which actually are improved with GAPS (this is for another post – she’s back on after 2 years off), and I’m going to continue looking for ways to help her achieve her highest potential.

Some people don’t see the point in doing a diet or healing protocol like GAPS unless the children are ‘normal’ after it.  Any parent that has a child with special needs knows that any step we can take to help them live an easier life, one without digestive pain, one with less sensory issues… anything that we can do for our children is worth the effort.

It’s about giving all of our children the gift of health as much as we are able.

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