Autism And Gut Dysfunction If you’re not up-to-speed on the topic of how the gut affects our health, you’re in for a crash course. Many parents are still in the dark about the gut connection and autism.
Science has shown that not only do autistic children have a high prevalence of gut issues, but gut dysfunction has also been associated with increased autism severity, irritability, anxiety, and certain challenging behaviors such as aggression, hyperactivity, and self-injurious behavior.
In this article, we’ll look at the various gut problems autistic children experience and how they can affect behavior. As you’ll see, the gut-brain connection plays a pivotal role in how we feel, think, and act, and this has many implications in autism and other conditions.
But we’ll take it a step further than just looking at “problems” and statistics. What use is it to examine information if we can’t get some actionable insights out of it? That is why we’ll also look at the factors that contribute to gut dysfunction.
Every action has a reaction. Every symptom has an underlying root cause. If you can learn to investigate the reasons your child has gut dysfunction, with the help of your health care provider, you have a chance to greatly improve your child’s health and quality of life.
To conclude this article, we’ll cover the basics improving your child’s gut, so you know what first steps to take. Does that sound like a good proposition? I thought you might agree. Let’s first look at what the science tells us about gut issues and autism.
Gut Dysfunction in Autistic Children
It’s now common knowledge in the scientific and medical community that autistic children often suffer from gut dysfunction. Over the past two decades, studies have reported that anywhere from 9% to 90% of the autistic children who participated had at least one gastrointestinal symptom.
The most common symptoms reported by parents are:
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive gas
If your child is experiencing gut issues such as constipation or diarrhea, you don’t really need scientific research to tell you that. You can just use your powers of observation to come to that realization.
But here’s the important bit: Studies have found that gut problems are associated with the severity of autism symptoms.
[1-4] Researchers have reported that a higher prevalence of gut problems in autistic children has been associated with worse scores on various assessments related to social withdrawal, speech, stereotypy, sensory cognitive and physical behavior.
In addition, studies have found that autistic children with gut dysfunction can express their discomfort in an emotional and behavioral way such as:
- Self-injurious behavior
- Non-compliance to requests
- Oppositional defiant behaviors
Of course, any scientist or person who knows a thing or two about statistics will tell you that “correlation does not equal causation”. In other words, just because higher autism severity correlates with a higher prevalence of gut dysfunction, it does not necessarily mean that the gut issues are causing higher autism severity.
However, we have studies showing that treating the gut for various harmful organisms like yeast or bacteria results in an improvement in autistic symptoms. Those studies strongly indicate that gut problems are likely to be causing, or at least contributing, too many children’s autism symptoms.
Why Do Gut Problems Affect the Brain and Behaviour?
Apart from just making you cranky and short-tempered, gut problems can influence your behavior through other means. Inside the gut, we harbor up to 100 trillion little critters, most of them bacteria.
Our microbiota’s jobs include:
- Helping to absorb our food
- Producing vitamins and other substances such as neurotransmitters
- Keeping harmful organisms at bay
- Regulating the immune system
- Maintaining the gut barrier
These are all incredibly important jobs. If the gut bacteria are disrupted for any reason, it can affect the person’s health negatively.
In addition, because our bacteria produce neurotransmitters, they exert an influence on our brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that the cells (called neurons) in our brain and central nervous system use to communicate with each other. Through them we think, feel, and behave.
Your child’s gut bacteria produce chemicals that affect:
- Learning and memory
- Stress response and anxiety
- Many other behavioral factors
In other words, the bugs in your child’s gut play a major role in your child’s behavior and mental development. A huge role.
Here’s another key piece of the puzzle: many autistic children have been shown to have disrupted gut microbiota. Many suffer from bacterial and yeast infections, and reduced numbers of beneficial bacteria (also called probiotics).
What have we covered so far? Let’s break it down and summarise it because it’s critical that you understand this information.
- Many autistic children suffer from gut problems.
- Gut dysfunction has been associated with higher autism severity, anxiety, irritability, hyperactivity, and certain challenging behaviors.
- The bacteria in your child’s gut exert direct and indirect influence on their behavior and emotions.
- Studies have shown many autistic children to have disrupted gut microbiota.
What You Need to Do to Help Your Child
As mentioned at the outset, every symptom in the body emerges because of an underlying imbalance. If you eat too much sugar, your blood sugar will crash, and you’ll feel woozy.
If you’re deficient in iron or vitamin B12, you’ll lack energy and be lethargic. If you catch a parasite or some nasty bacteria, you’ll have tummy trouble. Cause and effect.
What’s the point I’m making? If you and your health care provider can identify and address the underlying causes of your child’s gut dysfunction, your child’s chances of seeing relief increase dramatically.
As long as you don’t just try to suppress the symptoms but actually look deeper with a knowledgeable practitioner, you can improve not just your child’s health and quality of life, but yours too.
That is because you will be directly affected if your child has gut issues. Studies have shown autistic children with gastrointestinal symptoms to have disrupted sleep. And if your child can’t sleep well, guess who else can’t sleep well? Yes, improving your child’s health and wellbeing will have direct positive effects on your wellbeing.
The Importance of Gut Health
The best first step in improving your child’s health is improving their gut function because, as you just saw, the gut affects the entire body, not just in a physical sense but also in terms of behavior, emotions, and other mental factors.
What is a healthy gut? Your child’s gut needs to perform the following jobs effectively to be considered in a healthy state.
- Break down, extract, and absorb nutrients from food
- Provide nutrients and energy to the body
- Keep out foreign substances
- Maintain and repair itself
- Maintain the beneficial bacteria and keep harmful bugs in check
If any of the above is not working correctly, health issues can arise. An important thing to know about the gut is that its lining is only one cell thick. This makes it very sensitive to external assaults, which can affect the microbiota. As you know now, this can have a direct influence on our brain and behavior.
In fact, our microbiota’s composition is affected by many external factors, such as the food we eat, sleep, toxins, medications, and various other stressors.
This means that every meal you give your child will have either a positive or negative effect on their microbiota, and by extension will influence their mood and behavior.
Do you know what that means? Yes, food matters. More than you can imagine. But you know what else it means? It means you hold within your hand’s great power to improve your child’s health.
Let’s look at the major contributors to gut problems in autistic children before discussing some things you can do to improve the state of your child’s gut.
Causes of Gut Dysfunction
Gut dysfunction can be caused by a range of factors, but the most common culprits include:
- Pathogenic infections (bacterial, yeast, or parasitic).
- Leaky gut (also known as “intestinal permeability”) – yes, it is a real thing and many autistic children are affected by it.
- Poor diet.
- Food allergies or sensitivities.
- Inflammation in the gut due to various factors.
- Immune system irregularities.
Other factors that can contribute to gut dysfunction include exposure to toxins such as heavy metals and harmful chemicals (e.g. pesticides) and certain medications (e.g. antibiotics, antacids, anti-inflammatories).
When the gut is disrupted, we call that a state of dysbiosis. It usually means there is inflammation, lowered levels of good bacteria, and increased bad bacteria.
What to Do About Gut Dysfunction
The first thing you need to do is figure out what the contributors to gut dysfunction are. As you just saw, their many potential factors that could be causing it, so it helps if you can narrow them down and exclude those that don’t apply to your child.
For this, you will need to run some lab tests. To start with, the most important tests are those that identify harmful organisms. The two best tests to use are:
- The organic acids test: a small urine sample is taken at home and sent to the lab for analysis. It helps to identify fungal (yeast-like Candida and mould) and bacterial (e.g. Clostridia) infections. Candida and Clostridia bacteria are heavily implicated in autism, so you need to see if they are a problem for your child and address them as soon as possible.
- A comprehensive stool pathogen screening: a small poop sample is taken at home and sent for analysis. It helps to identify parasites and other harmful bacteria that the organic acids test doesn’t screen for.
The above tests complement each other very well because each is good at finding different pathogens that could be harming your child.
If you can only afford one, do the organic acids test because it has many other useful markers such as nutritional deficiencies and other health issues that are common in autistic children.
If you identify harmful organisms on the above tests, your health care practitioner needs to design a suitable pathogen eradication protocol to remove them.
This usually involves herbs and probiotics, but with more serious infections antibiotics may be the best choice. Always follow your practitioner’s guidance.
Getting a grip on the pathogens is the most critical part. You can’t expect to improve your child’s gut health unless you get rid of them.
The next thing you can do is to test for food sensitivities. If your child has gut dysfunction, it is very likely they have leaky gut (intestinal permeability), which can lead to food sensitivities.
If that is the case, you want to identify and remove all offending foods until your child’s gut has healed. Otherwise, the recovery process will be slowed down due to the inflammation and immune reactions.
Finally, you want to support your child’s gut health and healing with the following:
- An organic whole foods diet. Do not underestimate the importance of an all-organic diet for your child. Pesticides have been implicated in many conditions, including ASD, so removing foods at risk contamination is critical.
- Minimum possible junk food. There are so many harmful ingredients in poor quality foods, that you want to minimize these as much as possible while your child’s gut heals. Try making your own home-made desserts and snacks to avoid the mass-manufactured products.
- Supplements such as probiotics, digestive enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids, multivitamins, zinc, aloe Vera.
For More Guidance on Healthy Food please Read below Articles
The above are the bare essentials to get you going with improving your child’s gut and overall health. Of course, your health care practitioner will advise you on how best to proceed.
Please remember that gut dysfunction in autism is one of the most important things you need to know and do something about. The sooner you identify the factors contributing to your child’s gut problems, the sooner you can get a grip on them and reap the benefits. The best part is that improving your child’s quality of life will translate into a better quality for you and your whole family.
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