Autism and the Digestive System – First Things First
Often once the diagnosis of autism is made, the first thought that runs through a parents heads is, “What now?” The traditional medical approach is to begin with behavioral therapies. The most popular programs that therapists use are the Lovaas Model based on Applied Behavioral Analysis and the Early Start Denver Model.
Behavioral therapy may be an essential step, but I feel that the best first step for any parent, is to take a serious look at fixing digestion, nutrient digestion and absorption. Let’s take a look at why!
The Gastrointestinal Tract (GI)
It has been known for quite some time that autistic individuals have more GI complaints than the typical individual. Some reports have shown that almost 50% or more of children with autism suffer from symptoms. The GI tract is responsible for digestion and absorption and when it is not functioning optimally, other systems and organs are unable to perform optimally.
Fixing GI disturbances may the best way to start any therapy and will definitely provide additional benefit to any other therapy of choice.
If absorption is impaired an autistic individual who needs growth, development, repair, healing and optimal organ function, simply cannot perform the necessary internal biochemical steps necessary for healing to occur. Not only does the digestive tract allow for proper nutrition, up to 80% of the immune system is housed in the gut and much of the nervous system is regulated by the intestinal tract. In functional medicine, the gut to brain connection is mentioned so frequently that it has it’s own nickname, “the gut-brain axis.”
What are some signs and symptoms of digestive disturbances?
- Cramping or pain
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Bloating and gas
Remember, that none of these are normal, even if you experience them yourself and you don’t have autism. Also remember that children have difficulty describing these symptoms; thus, autistic children are likely to have even more difficulty and may simply scream, cry or hold their stomach. I define constipation as anything less than 2 bowel movements per day or simply difficulty passing stool. If your child has constant flatulence, this is also abnormal and is often a sign of dysbiosis. (Also if you have frequent flatulence, you suffer from a GI issue)
Management of the GI Tract in Autism
Typical therapies for GI disturbance include prescription antifungals, antibiotics and other harmful drugs. For most cases I feel this is a disservice to the patient. The gut ecosystem is extremely sensitive to change and is constantly performing a balancing act. Prescription antifungals and antibiotics in general use a “take no prisoners” approach and simply kill all bugs, good or bad, in sight. This is too harsh of a treatment in my opinion, especially for those that already suffer from a damaged GI tract.
Probiotics are often a good choice, but sometimes are not powerful enough to crowd out the bad organisms with the good. Also probiotics much like any herbal remedy, essential oil or nutritional supplement are very specific. A certified applied kinesiologist can help you determine which specific strains will benefit you and/or your child most. Some individual probiotic strands are hard to come by in the open market and may have to be ordered through your physician or even from companies outside of the US.
As far as antifungals and antibiotics go, I only use Supreme Nutrition products. The most common product I find patients in need of is Golden Thread; with Morinda Supreme and Melia Supreme coming in at 2nd and 3rd, respectively. These herbal remedies have been shown to be effective at killing unwanted organisms and are able to spare the needed healthy organisms.
Dietary Considerations for Digestion
To put it simply, the gluten-free and casein-free diet (GF/CF) has been shown time and time again to be the most beneficial diet for autistic children. Some people have reported that the GF/CF diet can take up to 6 months to produce significant changes, which is probably accurate with only dietary intake changes, but with proper nutritional supplementation geared towards specific needs, digestive healing at times can occur much faster.
It is important to remember that from a holistic view, the GI tract is not a separate condition from autism and in any given patient it could be the most critical piece of the puzzle. Your autism specialist should be a physiology generalist so that he/she can consider not just the symptoms of autism, but also the underlying mechanisms and body systems like the GI tract in order to provide the best results.