Three decades ago, when I was still in medical school, autism affected one in 10,000 children.1, 2 Today, autism is estimated to afflict as many as one in 50 children.3
Mounting research indicates that brain disorders are the result of excessive exposure to toxins from multiple sources—including the mother, while in utero.
Another critical factor appears to be related to gut bacteria, which are of course also adversely affected by toxic exposures of all kinds, from food, environment, and medicine.
The more we learn about the functions of the human microbiome, the more we come to realize that bacteria may in fact be responsible for a vast majority of human health conditions. As noted in a previous article by Experience L!fe:4
“The idea that we have so many more microbial cells than human cells runs counter to the long-held belief that our health is mostly orchestrated by instructions embedded in our DNA.
Scientists worked hard to crack the human genome, but, ultimately, just knowing our genetic codes proved insufficient to actually cure disease. Researchers eventually realized they had to factor in and analyze the human microbiome to get a clearer picture of how health and well-being are maintained.”
Researchers Reaffirm Link Between Gut Dysfunction and Autism
Researchers are now starting to understand how a child’s microbiome can play a role, either by exacerbating or even causing autistic symptoms. As noted by Scientific American:5
“Autism is primarily a disorder of the brain, but research suggests that as many as nine out of 10 individuals with the condition also suffer from gastrointestinal problems such as inflammatory bowel disease and ‘leaky gut’…
Scientists have long wondered whether the composition of bacteria in the intestines, known as the gut microbiome, might be abnormal in people with autism and drive some of these symptoms.
Now a spate of new studies supports this notion and suggests that restoring proper microbial balance could alleviate some of the disorder’s behavioral symptoms.”
Indeed, this is precisely what Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride surmised when she created the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Program, which is designed to restore the integrity of your gut lining.
According to Dr. Campbell-McBride, most problems in the brain are usually connected to what’s going on in your digestive system. She may also have been among the first to discover that there’s a very important connection between damaged gut flora in pregnant women and developmental problems in their children, especially autism.
I believe the GAPS Nutritional program is vitally important for most, as the majority of people have such poor gut health due to poor diet and toxic exposures, but it’s particularly crucial for pregnant women and young children.
According to Dr. Campbell-McBride, in children with GAPS the toxicity flowing from their gut throughout their bodies and into their brains continually challenges their nervous system, preventing it from performing its normal functions and process sensory information.
GAPS may manifest in a wide range of symptoms, fitting the diagnosis of either autism, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD) without hyperactivity, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, just to name a few possibilities.
Autistic Children Have Fewer Healthy Bacteria, and Higher Levels of Toxins
In one recent experiment conducted by researchers at Arizona State University, feces from autistic and healthy children were compared to assess the composition of their microflora. Not surprisingly, the levels of bacterial colonies differed significantly between the two groups.
Another study, published last year in the journal PLOS One,6 also found that autistic children have distinctly different microbiome compared to healthy children. Notably, they had fewer healthy bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium. Autistic children also had markedly higher levels of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
The authors suggest that implementing a regimen of pre- and probiotics could be a useful treatment tool to restore microbial balance. They also noted that certain microbial indices may be signatures for autism.
“One open question is whether these microbial differences drive the development of the condition or are instead a consequence of it. A study published in December 2013 in Cell7 supports the former idea,” Scientific American8 goes on to report.
When researchers at the California Institute of Technology incited autismlike symptoms in mice using an established paradigm that involved infecting their mothers with a viruslike molecule during pregnancy, they found that after birth, the mice had altered gut bacteria compared with healthy mice.
By treating the sick rodents with a health-promoting bacterium called Bacteroides fragilis, the researchers were able to attenuate some, but not all, of their behavioral symptoms. The treated mice had less anxious and stereotyped behaviors and became more vocally communicative.”
The Rise of Nutritional Psychiatry
The Caltech study9 published in Cell is said to be the first to demonstrate that alterations in gut bacteria can directly influence autism-like behaviors in mice. Previous research has shown that probiotics can serve as an alternative treatment to antidepressant drugs in those with depression and anxiety.
In fact, we’re now seeing the rise of “nutritional psychiatry,” which I believe is a huge leap in the right direction. In a paper published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology10 earlier this year, the authors discuss the importance of fermented foods for mental health.
Fermentation, they note, produces varieties of phytochemicals and flavonoids that are otherwise rare in the human diet, which can readily alter the microbial profile in your intestines for the better. They write:
“[T]he consumption of fermented foods may be particularly relevant to the emerging research linking traditional dietary practices and positive mental health. The extent to which traditional dietary items may mitigate inflammation and oxidative stress may be controlled, at least to some degree, by microbiota.
It is our contention that properly controlled fermentation may often amplify the specific nutrient and phytochemical content of foods, the ultimate value of which may associated with mental health; furthermore, we also argue that the microbes (for example, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species) associated with fermented foods may also influence brain health via direct and indirect pathways.”
Iron Deficiency Also Raises Autism Risk
In related news, another recent study11, 12 suggests that women over the age of 35 who are deficient in iron during pregnancy, concurrent with a metabolic condition, have a five-fold greater risk of having an autistic child. According to The Scotsman:13
“Low iron intake was associated with the higher risk if the mother was 35 or older at the time of the child’s birth or if she suffered from metabolic conditions such as obesity hypertension or diabetes.”
Three years ago, Assistant Professor Rebecca Schmidt at the University of California reported an association between folic acid supplementation and a reduced risk for autism. In her latest study, maternal iron intake during pregnancy was also found to play a role. According to Professor Schmidt:
“Iron deficiency, and its resultant anemia, is the most common nutrient deficiency, especially during pregnancy, affecting 40 to 50 percent of women and their infants. Iron is crucial to early brain development, contributing to neurotransmitter production, myelination and immune function. All three of these pathways have been associated with autism.”
This article first appeared at Mercola.