Natural Approaches to Autism

What is Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in early childhood and can significantly impact the way a child interacts with his or her world. Every child with autism is different but many have challenges with emotional cues, speech, and repetitive behaviors.

Classic signs of autism tend to appear between the ages of 2 and 3 and often manifests as delayed speech development. In some cases, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Identifying signs early can lead to effective early intervention and improved outcomes.

Autism is treatable. While autism generally requires support throughout the lifespan, all children and adults can benefit from interventions that can reduce symptoms and increase skills and abilities. Although it is best to begin intervention as soon as possible, the benefits of therapy can continue throughout life.

 

Autism Facts

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates autism’s prevalence as 1 in 68 children in the United States. This includes 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls.
  • Around one third of people with autism remain nonverbal.
  • Around one third of people with autism have an intellectual disability.
  • Certain medical and mental health issues frequently accompany autism. They include gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures, sleep disturbances, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and phobias.

 

Causes of Autism

The likely causes of autism area related to genetic and environmental factors. Children who develop autism often have similar genetic variations that probably make them vulnerable to neurological changes. Identical twins have a higher likelihood of both developing autism than fraternal twins or siblings.

There is also significant evidence that points to environmental factors like exposure to viruses or toxins in early pregnancy or infancy triggering neurological changes resulting in autism. Environmental exposures can cause inflammation in the brains of young children, an especially susceptible population. This neuro-inflammation can be seen when a specific type of brain cell called microglia are abnormal. In fact, these abnormal microglia cells are one of the most common pathological features present in the brains of children with autism.

 

Naturopathic Considerations

Every child with autism is unique and individual symptoms of autism can vary widely. Because of this, there is no universal treatment for autism. This can often make treatment tricky but naturopathic doctors excel at treating the individual and finding the root cause of disease to achieve lasting health.

There are at least two systems of the body that are almost always affected in children with autism: the brain and the gut. Supporting these two systems will likely result in noticeable improvement and further treatment can be fine-tuned from there based on the individual.

 

Brain

Children with autism have increased levels of inflammation in their brains. Decreasing this inflammation can help improve symptoms. In addition to optimizing some lifestyle considerations like getting adequate sleep and physical activity, there are several supplements that can be useful in addressing inflammation.

 

Fish Oil: DHA and EPA are two essential fatty acids found in cold water fish that are highly concentrated in the brain and play a key role in neuroprotection and decreasing inflammation.

Curcumin: Curcumin is the biologically active component in the popular spice turmeric. It contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and can be helpful in neuroinflammatory conditions due to it neuroprotective ability to regulate the immune system.

Boswellia: Similar to curcumin, boswellia is an anti-inflammatory that can regulate the immune response. It modulates the movement of white blood cells and regulates the production of inflammatory compounds while promoting healthy neurons.

 

Gut

Supporting a healthy gut serves multiple purposes. The gut houses the microbiome which is the bacteria living in your intestines and affects both the production of neurotransmitters and the immune system which, in turn, affect the brain.

 

Diet: Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can be useful in decreasing general inflammation and there are studies that show a gluten-free, casein-free diet can be especially helpful in children with autism. The effect of both of these diet styles is to decrease the ability of rogue proteins slipping through cracks in the intestines. Since the immune system responds to proteins, when protein slips through cracks rather than being absorbed appropriately it activates the immune system and promotes a detrimental inflammatory response.

L-glutamine: This is an amino acid essential for the growth and repair of the intestinal lining. L-glutamine acts by coating the intestinal wall and protecting it from irritants that may cause damage and cracks leading to the escape of proteins. It also provides fuel for the brain.

Probiotics: The bacteria in your gut play a huge role in neurotransmitter production and regulation of the immune system. When these bacteria become imbalanced these downstream effects are compromised. Taking a high-quality probiotic can help support healthy bacteria balance.

 

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Autism Fact Sheet. Last reviewed March 10, 2017.

El-Ansary A, Al-Ayadhi L. GABAergic/glutamatergic imbalance relative to excessive neuroinflammation in autism spectrum disorders. J Neuroinflammation. 2014 Nov 19;11:189. (PubMed)

Takano T. Role of microglia in autism: recent advances.  Dev Neurosci. 2015;37(3):195-202. (PubMed)

Rosenfeld CS. Microbiome disturbances and autism spectrum disorder. Drug Metab Dispos. 2015 Oct;43(10):1557-71. (PubMed)

Cekici H, Sanlier N. Current nutritional approaches in managing autism spectrum disorder: a review.  Nutr Neurosci. 2017 Aug 1:1-11. (PubMed)

Ammon HP. Boswellic acids in chronic inflammatory diseases. Plants Med. Oct;72(12):1100-16. (PubMed)

Madore C et al. Neuroinflammation in autism: plausible role of maternal inflammation, dietary omega 3 and microbiota. Neural Plast. Epub 2016 Oct 20. (PubMed)

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