A Functional Medicine Approach to Autism
Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have sky rocketed over a short period of time. In 1970, an estimated 1 in 10,000 children were found to be autistic. In 1995 it was 1 in 500. In 2001 it became 1 in 250. Today, 1 in 68 children are diagnosed as autistic.
The reality is, genetics alone does not explain the epidemic growth of autism and other conditions like it . Our genetics haven’t changed in the last 40 years. Better diagnosis may explain part of the astronomic increase of autism, but only in part. In reality, the medical literature (1) is beginning to recognize autism as an autoimmune reaction against the brain.
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The Gut & Brain Connection
We are only beginning to understand the communication lines between the gut and the brain (gut-brain axis). Every condition that has an immune component has been correlated to some dysfunction of the gut. Called the “second brain” in the literature, your gut is home to around 80% of your immune system.
This sophisticated system, made up of trillions of bacteria, is collectively called the microbiome. The microbiome also has been shown to be a key player in turning on and off genetic expression. Now you can see, with its implications in immune health and genetic expression, why the gut is at the center of some autism research.
One study (2) compared the microbiome of children with and without autism. They found the autistic kids didn’t have the same gut diversity the others had.
Another study (3) found mice with autism like symptoms had the similar lack of gut bacteria diversity.
The prevailing theory in the medical literature (4) is that an imbalanced microbiome and a weakened gut lining or “leaky gut” can cause an inflammatory immune response against the brain and a genetic predisposition to be turned on.
The Genetic Predisposition
Methylation, your biochemical reaction superhighway, happens more than 1 billion times every second in your body to keep you vitally healthy.
Methylation protects our DNA, detoxes our body, and makes our brain and gut healthy.
In short, if methylation is not working well, a lot can go wrong with your health.
There are many different genes that are responsible for making methylation happen. Methylation gene mutations or changes can impair our body’s ability to methylate.
One of those methylation genes is the MTHFR gene. MTHFR gene mutations don’t send all the instructions to make the important enzyme that converts the inactive B vitamin folic acid, into the active methyl-folate. Some research estimates that those of us with MTHFR changes make up to 70% less methyl-folate!
According to a International Society for Autism Research study (5) indicated that the MTHFR C677T polymorphism contributed to increased risk of autism spectrum disorders.
Another study published in Translational Psychiatry found multiple dysregulated DNA methylation pathways that affected the brain of autism patients.
It is methylation gene changes like these that can be triggered by the epigenetic factors of the gut-brain axis that I mentioned before.
To learn more about methylation read What You Need To Know About The Gene Mutation That Affects 40% Of The World.
So What Can I Do Now?
1. Diagnostic testing
Comprehensive diagnostic testing will give insight to the individual case. Some of the labs that I run on patients around the world are:
Comprehensive Gut & Parasitology: a careful look at the microbiome and gut health. I recommend a two or three day collection for the most accurate results.
Gut Permeability: measures the damage of the gut lining or leaky gut syndrome, which can lead to inflammation of the gut and the brain (gut-brain axis).
Comprehensive Antibodies: a detailed look at any inflammatory autoimmune responses against the brain, gut and many different systems in the body.
DNA Methylation Pathway Profile: This test looks at around 30 methylation SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms). By looking for DNA mutations that govern methylation, it gives us a personalized guide to what your unique genetic weaknesses and imbalances are so that they can be specifically addressed.
2. Heal the gut
Researchers found that by giving the “autistic” mice the beneficial probiotic bacteroides fragilis, they were less anxious and communicated more vocally, both common autism struggles.
3. Calm the brain
Because autism is also a condition that affects the brain, it is essential to support optimal brain health. Foods like oysters and avocados are some of my favorite brain calming foods.
4. Dampen any immune response
Diseases that have an immunological component are at an all time high for many different reasons. Here are my favorite ways to calm down any potential autoimmune response against the brain.
Natural medicines like turmeric is one tool to dampen brain inflammatory immune responses.
5. Find food intolerances
A gluten and dairy free diet has been shown (9) to be beneficial in improving some autism symptoms.
In addition to food intolerance labs, I recommend doing my 60 day reset diet to find out underlying food intolerances that can exacerbate symptoms.
6. Support genetic weaknesses
Vitamin B12, in conjunction with other activated B vitamins such as methyl-folate help support optimal methylation pathways.
There are many different, unique methylation genetic changes that can happen, so what works for one person may not for the next. Depending on the specific MTHFR polymorphisms, certain types of B12 may be better tolerated, which can support healthy methylation pathways.
Working with a qualified practitioner can help determine if methyl B12, hydroxycobalamin B12, adenosynl B12, or cyano B12 is best for you.
7. Consider functional medicine
Writing an article about autism is a sensitive subject. There are many different pieces to the autism puzzle, these are some, not all, of those pieces.
In no way am I oversimplifying this complex condition. There is no easy answer to the multifaceted web of genetic and environmental factors that are at play with autism spectrum disorders. I want to give you a starting point of understanding to this complicated topic.
I also am in no way putting blame on any parent by somehow insinuating that you are the cause of why your child has autism. As a parent myself, I am very aware that most times we try to do the best we can with the information we have.
I wrote this article because parents are given very little options in mainstream medicine. As a functional medicine practitioner, I can’t look at the statistics and the research on autism and stay silent on what we can do now.
As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.
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- Brimberg L, Sadiq A, Gregersen PK, Diamond B. Brain-reactive IgG correlates with autoimmunity in mothers of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Mol Psychiatry. 2013;18(11):1171‐1177. doi:10.1038/mp.2013.101
- Maria De Angelis, Maria Piccolo, Lucia Vannini, Sonya Siragusa, Andrea De Giacomo, Diana Isabella Serrazzanetti, Fernanda Cristofori, Maria Elisabetta Guerzoni, Marco Gobbetti, Ruggiero Francavilla, Fecal Microbiota and Metabolome of Children with Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified PLOS October 9, 2013. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076993
- Elaine Y. Hsiao, Sara W. McBride, Sophia Hsien, Joseph F. Petrosino, Paul H. Patterson, Sarkis K. Mazmanian, Microbiota Modulate Behavioral and Physiological Abnormalities Associated with Neurodevelopmental Disorders Cell December 05, 2013. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2013.11.024
- Mulle JG, Sharp WG, Cubells JF. The gut microbiome: a new frontier in autism research. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2013;15(2):337. doi:10.1007/s11920-012-0337-0
- Pu D, Shen Y, Wu J. Association between MTHFR gene polymorphisms and the risk of autism spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis. Autism Res. 2013;6(5):384‐392. doi:10.1002/aur.1300
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.