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Autism and the Gut

The following is taken from Dr David Perlmutter’s book, Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain – for Life. This week we are looking at the link between autism and the gut.

“Hardly a day goes by that I don’t answer a question about autism, one of the most debated disorders in the last decade. What exactly causes it? Why are so many children diagnosed with it today? Will there ever be a cure or guaranteed preventive measure?

Firstly, let me clarify that for purposes of this discussion, I’m going to use the term autism to encompass all the degrees on the spectrum. To be sure, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms to describe a large and diverse family of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders share three classic characteristics: difficulties in social interaction, challenges with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviours.

As I’ve described, for a long time problems with the gut were regarded as a set of symptoms unrelated to the brain, but we’re now discovering how gut health and function – especially gut bacteria – connect to brain development. We are also finally seeing how gut bacteria may contribute to the development and progression of a brain disorder such as autism. As you’ll soon learn, one of the most convincing pieces of evidence linking intestinal microbes and autism is the fact that children with autism exhibit certain patterns in the composition of their gut bacteria that are absent in children without autism. For a neurologist like me, who helps parents treat children with this baffling disorder, this observation is a huge red flag, coupled with the fact that individuals with autism almost uniformly suffer from GI problems.

Multiple studies now show that GI conditions are among the hallmarks of autism. Parents of children with autism usually report that their children suffer from abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating. In 2012, researchers at the National Institutes of Health evaluated children with autism and found that constipation was seen in 85 percent of them, with gastrointestinal distress noted in 92 percent. The main purpose of the study was to answer this question: Do children with autism actually have GI issues, or is that a mistaken observation on the part of the parents? The concluding notes by these researches stated, “This study validates parental concerns for gastrointestinal dysfunction in children with autistic spectrum disorder.”

Other research has determined that another pattern exists among many individuals with autism: leaky gut. As you know, this can result in an overly active immune response and inflammation that reaches the brain.

Clearly, a lot is going on in the guts of people with autism. If we take a step back and ask what might be causing all these issues, we have to consider the microbiome. Cutting-edge research is finding that the gut ecosystem of individuals with autism is dramatically different from that of people without autism. In particular, higher levels of clostridial species, which crowd out the balancing effects of other gut bacteria, leading to lower levels of beneficial bugs like bifidobacteria. Higher levels of clostridial species may help explain why many kids with autism crave carbohydrates – especially refined sugars, the foods that feed these bugs – creating a vicious cycle that fuels the proliferation of more Clostridia.

The studies are promising, and could lead to new preventive measures and therapies that can help shift autism from being a debilitating disorder to a manageable condition. They will, for the most part, come from dietary choices and probiotic treatments to rebalance the microbiome. They will be lifestyle interventions that are highly accessible and economical for everyone.

I want you to keep in mind that our day-to-day lifestyle choices have a big effect on our biology and even the activity of our genes. What’s empowering about this is that we can change our health’s destiny, as well as the destiny of our children’s health, if we make the right choices. Now that we have evidence to suggest that food, stress, exercise, sleep – and the state of our microbiome – affect which of our genes are activated and which remain suppressed, we can take some degree of control in all of these realms. To be sure, we may never be able to totally eradicate the possibility of autism or another brain disorder, but we can most certainly do our best to reduce the chances. And now that we know that the gut bacteria factor in somewhere, harnessing the microbiome for the benefit of the brain becomes key.”

Once again we see how important it is for your gut microbes to be balanced and to contain all the right beneficial bacteria. As we have seen, there is no end to what probiotics (beneficial bacteria) can do for the body. To date, going by what Dr Perlmutter has to say in previous extracts, probiotics can assist with the following conditions: Alzheimers, depression, obesity, diabetes, leaky gut, constipation, acid reflux and heartburn, eczema and the common cold.

The Content on this page was taken from the book, Brain Maker by Dr David Perlmutter.

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