Autism and the gut

Posted by Melissa Callaghan on

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterised by impairments in social interactions and communications, repetitive behaviour.  There are however, common co-morbidities (a medical condition that occurs at the same time as another) that ASD children usually experience such as: allergies, epilepsy, gastrointestinal disorders, attention difficulties, anxiety, insomnia, and low immune system. 

Around 91% of children with ASD experience a gastrointestinal disorder of some kind such as constipation or diarrhoea, or both, food allergies and/or intolerances.  Often is the case that these signs and symptoms are not connected to ASD by the practitioner and therefore either ignored or treated in a generic way.   

The prevalence of ASD is increasing year after year and new research is coming out all the time.  Including this new research published in October 2017, which I absolutely love as it is a major area that I work in with my ASD patients. The GUT. Amazing progress can be made by working on the Gut, including improved sleep and behaviour.

What does the research have to say?

This research paper was printed in October 2017 and discusses the connection between ASD, the gut, and mitochondrial dysfunction. 

What is mitochondrial dysfunction I hear you say?  To understand mitochondrial dysfunction check out this blog post by clicking on the photo

Now back to the research!!!!!

Most of the treatment protocols for ASD focus on the the co-morbid conditions such as insomnia, fussy eating, allergies, etc, rather than investigating further into the core symptoms and root cause.  An example of this is if you have tried Melatonin for insomnia and it doesn’t work or it does in the beginning and then stops working, as I explain to my patients it’s not usually melatonin that is the problem and once we work on the problem the sleep improves.

The prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms in ASD is high but not well understood.  What is understood is that there are imbalances in the microbiome causing inflammation which can be resolved with treatment, this is something that I do in my clinic all the time. However as with all Naturopathic approaches I need to get to the root cause of the inflammation and this research paper is showing us that one of the possibilities could be mitochondrial dysfunction in the gut.

The fact is that the mitochondria are an integral part of cellular functions and are open to damage from many sources (as explained in the mitochondria blog). According to Hollis at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland clinical studies have identified disturbances in patients with ASD in their mitochondria at a DNA level, oxidative stress, and metabolites in blood and urine. However, there hasn’t been alot of investigation into it.

The Arkansas Children’s Research Institute was given permission to collect samples from the cecum and rectum for a blinded case-controlled study.  They compared those of children with ASD to those with Crohn’s disease, and those with non-specific gastrointestinal symptoms.  It was found that children with ASD have greater amounts of dysbiotic bacteria compared to commensal bacteria. What does this mean? Dysbiosis is a term for microbial imbalance or maladaptation on or inside the body whereas commensal bacteria are part of the normal flora that all live happily together and don’t harm each other. When the gastrointestinal tract is healthy it provides a positive immune and metabolic regulation. When there is an imbalance in children with ASD it causes oxidative stress, inflammation, and mitochondrial dysfunction.

This research confirmed that there were key differences in the microbiome and in particular involving the production of butyrate. This also involves another metabolite called propionic acid which is also found in the cecum. What this means to me as a Naturopath is that I am able to focus treatment in a more specific way to children with ASD than that of another child with gastrointestinal dysfunction. Making the focus on the individual child instead of a generic approach. As a Children’s Health Specialist this is what I like to do as everyone has a unique set of signs and symptoms.

In conjunction with repairing the gastrointestinal system, diet modifications are needed. One way of doing this is through an individualised version of a ketogenic diet which is only lowering their carbohydrate intake, not low enough to go into ketosis but low enough to improve the carbohydrate tolerance and making improved choices of the right type of carbohydrates to eat.  


Who am I?

I am a Bachelor qualified Naturopath who specialises in improving metabolic processes in the body. Major areas for improvement include gut, thyroid, kidney, skin and liver health. Conditions such as hypothyroidism, fatty liver, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, & irritable bowel conditions. I help my patients by giving them symptomatic relief while working on repairing the underlying causes of metabolic stress and waste accumulation. Patients experience amazing results which are seen in their blood tests with improved thyroid markers, cholesterol, and liver markers.  As well as lower blood pressure and see relief from improved gastrointestinal symptoms like the ones that mean you need to know where every single toilet is before you leave the house. 

Melissa Callaghan ND, BHSc, BTeach
Clinical Naturopath


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