Is the Secret to Autism in “The Gut?”

Many of you know autism is a topic very close to my heart. My first teaching job was with autistic kids, and my very cool little brother has autism.

Some really groovy things have been happening in autism research these last few years and I’m going to share them as my contribution to Autism Awareness Month. I’m a giver that way. 🙂

What kinds of cool things?

This is pretty heady stuff for the families of autistic individuals. Answers and new therapies are always wished for and welcomed.

I wrote an article for Guardian Liberty Voice a while back about the connection between gut bacteria and ASD:

After all the years and studies, it’s looking like the key to autism might be located in the gut. Several new studies are pointing to inflammation, particularly in the gut, as a significant factor in the cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Not only are study results showing that probiotics decrease the inflammation and that they’re alleviating autistic-like symptoms in laboratory mice, the National Institutes of Health has found that the balance of organisms in the digestive tract, often called the microbiome, is key for healthy infant development.

Human microbiomes are made up of trillions of microbes. In addition to the usual genetic information babies inherit from their parents, scientists have discovered they also inherit the genetics of both parents’ microbiomes. This is huge news.

How does microbiome development work?

Just before birth, a fetus begins to populate healthy bacteria in their gut. Before this time, the womb is sterile. Scientists believe that the current higher rate of C-section births and maternal ingestion of antibiotics can disrupt microbiome formation in the infant’s digestive tract.

It was also determined that breastfed babies show a lower incidence of ADHD. Many autism researchers recommend that new mothers breastfeed, if they are able, as a strategy to prevent the development of ASD. These same researchers believe that the destruction of natural flora in infants and young children, through the use of antibiotics, contributes to the development of ASD and ADHD.

Why do the studies think “the gut” is the answer?

The microbiomes of autistic individuals are different, and researchers believe they are contributing to the disorder. Currently, autism is treated via various types of behavior therapy. Based on these new findings, early and consistent treatment with probiotics, which contain “friendly” bacteria helpful to gastrointestinal function may be at least as helpful.

Recent studies have shown that up to 90 percent of autistic children have gastrointestinal problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that children with autism are more than three times as likely to suffer from chronic constipation or diarrhea, as compared to their peers without autism.

What foods are “naturally probiotic” and why would they help?

probiotics, autism, Jenny HansenProbiotics occur naturally in foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi and pickles. Researchers are suggesting that ingestion of these foods be increased by everyone, but particularly by individuals with autism and their immediate family members.

The result of a test reported in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition found that intestinal permeability (IPT), also known as “leaky gut,”is significantly higher in patients with autism and their first-degree relatives.

The IPT of “normal” patients was 4.8% versus the much higher IPT values found in the autistic patients and their families, 36.7% and 21.2% respectively. The study also noted that 46.7% of children with autism experienced gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain and constipation.

Researchers firmly believe that administering probiotics will, at the very least, decrease the inflammation that can affect cognitive and social development as well as language. Whether the probiotics would more effective when delivered via dietary changes or via pharmaceutical probiotics has not yet been tested.

Current recommended dosage for autistic or ADHD children who experience gastrointestinal symptoms is a probiotic containing 15 to 30 billion healthy microorganisms every day.

Caltech biology professor, Paul Patterson, believes that if the gastrointestinal issues are alleviated in autistic children, their behavioral issues will be stabilized, and will be easier to treat. Another Caltech researcher, Elaine Hsiao, piggybacked off an earlier discovery that women who get through flu during pregnancy have double the risk of birthing a child with autism.

Hsiao injected pregnant mice with a mock virus, resulting in babies that exhibited autistic behavior: anxiety, obsessive grooming and aloofness from the other mouse pups. Those “autistic” mice developed the aforementioned leaky gut, which is often seen in autistic children.

When Hsiao took blood from these “autistic” pups, their samples contained 46 times more of a particular gut bacterial molecule than the non-autistic pups, indicating the bacteria was leaking into their bloodstream. When Hsiao injected healthy mice with this same molecule, they became more anxious.

After adding a probiotic, targeted to GI problems, into to the mice’s’ food, Hsiao saw several positive results within five weeks: the leaky gut sealed up, their levels of the bacterial molecule had plummeted and their gut microbiomes more closely resembled the healthy mice.

Most astonishing to the researchers was the mice’s behavior. They stopped their obsessive behavior, became more vocal and were much less anxious. They did remain aloof but the other behavior disappeared. The underlying message from all these studies: don’t underestimate the power and importance of gut bacteria. John Cryan, at University College Cork, believes that “gut microbes are as important as the nerve cells of the brain.”

For families dealing with the symptoms of autism, alleviation of some of those symptoms from probiotics would be an enormous relief. If I ever have another baby, I’m giving them probiotics from the starting gate.

In case you wanted to watch that TED Talk…

Article Sources:
Treat Autism & ADHD
Mind Body Green

Also, Del-Immune V has collected more than 50 articles about the link between “the gut” and autism on their blog (fabulous resource!).

What’s up with that Puzzle Piece Ribbon?

Autism Ribbon

Photo credit: Jason Eppink, Flickr

Do you deal with autism in your life? Have you found any foods that affect behavior? What do you think of these studies? Enquiring minds LOVE to know your thoughts here at More Cowbell!

~ Jenny

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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12 Responses to Is the Secret to Autism in “The Gut?”

  1. yvettecarol says:

    Absolutely brilliant and fascinating article, Jenny. I didn’t know your connection with Autism prior to this post, actually. Wow, so this explains your lovely tolerance and acceptance of “special” people. Now, I get it. Interesting that my Sam has always had gastro issues too. Hmm, must be a connection there, perhaps? I finally managed to get hospital tests done about five years ago, and discovered he’d been suffering reflux for years, his oesophagus was totally inflamed. He lives on medication to control it. Pity he’s so finicky about food, or else I could try him on some of these foods.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great piece, Jenny. My cousin’s grandson has struggled all his life to overcome autism. Don’t know about the microbiome (never heard this term before), but this boy’s mother and grandmother have both worked diligently with him under the guidance of a center in Waxahachie, Texas, and have had fantastic results. He will graduate from high school this spring with almost straight A’s, recently got his driver’s license, and is a pretty well-rounded young man, although still somewhat awkward in social situations. Hell, so am I.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue says:

    Wow- this is really interesting. I wonder if any research was done with probiotics and children with ADHD, and if any studies have been done on adults. My daughter is a cancer survivor (leukemia) and had CNS chemo as a result. She is now an adult but has struggled with cognitive late effects including ADD She also has had acid reflux and other stomach issues since she was a teenager. I’m now wondering if it’s all related, and not separate issues.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. drimhof says:

    Our brother, Dallas struggles with all of these afore mentioned issues and unfortunately, he is a very picky eater. Getting him to eat yogurt, keiffer, or kimchi would take an act of God. He does take a pro biotic and lots of vitamins daily. Hopefully doctors will be able to find practical treatment applications that can be used to help him function better in the group home.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting. Who’d have thought? I for one, love sauerkraut and pickles. Maybe it’s the vinegar that helps? Hmmm.

    Keep up the good work and continuing awareness.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Liked by 1 person

  6. K.B. Owen says:

    Fab post, Jenny, and thanks for making this info so accessible. I watched a TED talk a while back that talked about gut bacteria (or at least infection, I think it was gut) as a possible cause of depression, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kelly Byrne says:

    Terrific post, Jenny. I love that people are discovering the role the gut plays in so many things including autism and depression. It’s our center for a reason. When it’s not working properly, nothing else will either. Thanks for spreading the word and getting the information out there to a larger audience. Knowledge is power.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. karenmcfarland says:

    Dearest Jenny, why didn’t I know that your brother had autism? Then again, maybe you told me and I forgot. This is an awesome post! Great info has been learned about the connection between the gut and brain. And even though I do not have a family member with autism, I totally am on board with those findings. Interestingly enough, I’ve also read that if the parent takes antibiotics during pregnancy, it can also disrupt the good flora/lining of the gut/intestines of the baby. There of course is a huge controversy over vaccines and autism. From what I’ve read, it’s a culmination of things. Mostly, all the above can put the gut into overload. Thus, the healthy lining of the gut is compromised. Even if we aren’t autistic, the foods you recommend belong in everyone’s diet in order to prevent or mend leaky gut, which most of us walk around with and don’t know it. Leaky gut is the reason why I cannot find marrow bones, since bone broth is also a great way to heal the gut. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I had forgotten about your brother! I have a 34 year-old son with autism and so much has been learned since he was diagnosed. I hope the advances continue. This was a wonderful, well-researched article that will help many. Thank you, Jenny.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow- amazing blog post. I had no clue you were so closely associated with autism. I give you a lot of credit for teaching those with autism, and that could not be easy at times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Phil! I’ll tell you, that was one of the most difficult and most rewarding jobs I ever held. And one of the funniest, believe it or not. Autistic people are hilarious in their world view and their “concrete-ness.”


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