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A Functional Medicine Approach to Autism

A Functional Medicine Approach to Autism

A Functional Medicine Approach to Autism

The concepts of Functional Medicine are well suited for disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder. The development of autism involves multiple organ system imbalances, including the brain, gut and immune systems and detoxification pathways. There is a wide range of severities and causes for children and adults with autism, so not everyone should be treated in the same way.

Applied in conjunction with traditional treatment, a Functional Medicine approach is beneficial as we look at the entire picture of what’s happening for each individual and treat all these imbalances within the body. (1)

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that and it is considered a “spectrum” because the symptoms can range from mild (poor eye contact, difficulty vocalizing feelings and emotions) to more severe (nonverbal and unable to follow instructions). Individuals with ASD may also have restricted interests and exhibit repetitive behaviours. (2)

Autism symptoms

Social communication challenges

Children and adults with autism have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication. For example, they may not understand or appropriately use:

  • Spoken language (around a third of people with autism are nonverbal)
  • Gestures
  • Eye contact
  • Facial expressions
  • Tone of voice
  • Expressions not meant to be taken literally

Additional social challenges can include difficulty with:

  • Recognizing emotions and intentions in others
  • Recognizing one’s own emotions
  • Expressing emotions
  • Seeking emotional comfort from others
  • Feeling overwhelmed in social situations
  • Taking turns in conversation
  • Gauging personal space (appropriate distance between people)

Restricted and repetitive behaviours

Restricted and repetitive behaviours vary greatly across the autism spectrum. They can include:

  • Repetitive body movements (e.g. rocking, flapping, spinning, running back and forth) 
  • Repetitive motions with objects (e.g. spinning wheels, shaking sticks, flipping levers)
  • Staring at lights or spinning objects
  • Ritualistic behaviours (e.g. lining up objects, repeatedly touching objects in a set order)
  • Narrow or extreme interests in specific topics
  • Need for unvarying routine/resistance to change (e.g. same daily schedule, meal menu, clothes, route to school) (3)

What is the Functional Medicine approach to autism?

Traditional treatment plans for autism in children are usually multidisciplinary, involving parent-mediated interventions and targeting the child’s individual needs. Behavioural intervention strategies focus on social communication skill development and reduction of restricted interests and repetitive and challenging behaviours. For some children, occupational and speech therapy may be helpful, as could social skills training and medication in older children. (4)

In a complementary manner, a Functional Medicine health practitioner will look at genetics, the gut and micronutrients to understand what’s going on at the root cause. By addressing each root cause, we can start to rid the body of inflammation to help it detoxify and to provide the nutrients that the person needs. At Advanced Functional Medicine, we assess the overall biochemistry of the individual through thorough testing.  Treatment involves balancing the biochemistry, clearing any gut issues and reconnecting the gut/brain axis.

Reducing inflammation

Strong inflammation states are associated with ASD. This inflammatory condition is often linked to immune system dysfunction. Several cell types are enrolled to trigger and sustain these processes. Neuro-inflammation and neuro-immune abnormalities have now been established in ASD as key factors in its development and maintenance. (5)

There is a definite connection between the gut and the brain, so controlling gut inflammation is also key to treatment of brain inflammation.

Testing for chronic infections and blood inflammatory markers will give a clearer picture of inflammation present in the body. Dietary changes and removing food sensitivities at the first steps towards decreasing inflammation throughout the body.

Supporting nutrition

Diet can have a big impact on autism symptoms. Most patients on the spectrum are deficient in vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, and addressing these deficiencies allows the body to function optimally. 

Identify food sensitivities

People with autism are more susceptible to allergies and food sensitivities than the average person; and this is likely due to their impaired immune system and poor gut integrity. Individualized testing can identify troublesome foods and help work out a diet plan that works to reduce symptoms.

Remove casein and gluten

A number of foods, most commonly casein in dairy products, gluten and soy can exacerbate autism symptoms. It’s thought that both gluten and casein can be inflammatory and that reducing them from the diet can help overall health and behaviour in those who have autism.

  • Gluten is a protein in the seeds of wheat and other grains, such as barley and rye. Gluten is in many food products and can cause digestive problems.
  • Casein is a protein in milk products, and it may be another common source of digestive issues. 

According to University of Florida Department of Pediatrics, peptides in gluten and casein bind to opioid receptors in the brain. This can mimic the effects of illicit drugs, such as heroin or morphine, causing:

  • sleepiness
  • giddiness
  • inattentive behaviour, or “zoning out”
  • aggression
  • self-abusive behaviour

Improvements from a gluten- and dairy-free diet may be seen in as little as one to three months. 

Eat a plant-based, organic diet to reduce toxins

One underlying factor with autism is the excessive accumulation of toxins form various sources in our environment combined with an inability of the body’s biochemistry to excrete those toxins efficiently during the developing stages of the developmental milestones. (6)

Removing packaged foods reduces the toxic load and eliminates a lot of the toxic dyes, pesticides and preservatives that we consume in our busy, modern lives. Follow a primarily plant-based whole-foods diet, with an emphasis on consuming organic foods when possible. 

A diet rich in berries, green leafy vegetables, seeds and nut butters may reduce inflammation and help cognitive function. (7)

Heal the gut

Gastrointestinal symptoms, including constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, reflux, and abdominal pain, are very common in people with ASD. These symptoms are connected to the severity of ASD symptoms, with more severely impaired children exhibiting more GI-related issues.

Children with autism who have GI symptoms seem to have less diversity of bacteria in their gut, higher levels of harmful bacteria, and lower levels of specific beneficial bacteria.

The gut and the brain are very connected, which is why the gut is often referred to as the “second brain”. Bacteria in the gut act on the central nervous system, which allows for constant communication between the gut and the brain (via this gut-brain axis).

Many children with ASD have a “leaky gut”, which means their intestinal tract allows toxins and bacteria into the bloodstream instead of keeping them sealed within the walls of the intestines. This can cause problems with brain function and the immune system. 

Bacterial imbalances in the gut can also alter other compounds in the body, such as amino acids and fatty acids, which impact the brain and behaviour. The brain and gut also communicate through the immune system, and some people with ASD have a bacterial imbalance that activates the immune system and causes inflammation throughout the body and brain.

We can work towards healing the gut once we have conducted adequate gut testing and cleared any potential pathogens.  Once athogens, if present are identified and clear, supplement with probiotics and prebiotics is very beneficial:

  • Probiotics are beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria and Saccharomyces’s, which support health and overall body function. These beneficial bacteria have been shown to prevent and treat many issues, including depression, anxiety, obesity, bowel disorders and autoimmune issues. 
  • Prebiotics are components of foods that allow for the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Together, probiotics and prebiotics can increase the levels of health-supportive bacteria in the gut and have been shown to improve leaky gut, neurotransmitter production, and other issues related to brain function. Several studies have shown the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics for improving some symptoms of autism, although larger-scale studies are needed. (8)

Incorporate omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of good fat in fish oils and in supplement form that help with brain development and function. Some early studies have shown that adding omega-3s to a child’s diet can improve hyperactive and repetitive behaviour in those who have autism. Choosing a quality supplement is important here.

Ensure optimal nutrition with supplements

Many nutrient supplements are beneficial for people with autism, including dimethylglycine (DMG) and a combination of pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and magnesium. (9)

Supplements to support nutrition include:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B3
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Folate
  • Zinc
  • Cod liver oil 
  • Digestive enzymes 
  • Curcumin
  • Alpha lipoic acid
  • Glutathione and glutathione precursors like N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

An individualised supplement plan is always recommended as different autism patients often require different supplements based on their medical testing results.

Address sleep issues

Many children with autism experience persistent sleep problems and can exacerbate many of the symptoms of autism, such as:

  • having difficulty falling asleep
  • waking up early
  • having poor sleep quality
  • restlessness

A pilot study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that the natural supplement melatonin helped children with an ASD sleep better and decreased symptoms during the day. The study notes, however, that melatonin should only be used if autism is the cause of the sleep problems. If something else is causing the issue, you should address the underlying problem. (10)

We rarely prescribe melatonin, preferring to fix the upstream pathways that affect the melatonin pathway and get the body producing is own melatonin and related hormones.

Bright light therapy is a potential treatment for children with autism who struggle to sleep at night. With this treatment, the child is exposed to periods of bright light in the morning, which may help the body’s natural release of melatonin, getting early morning sun in the eyes and on the face helps to reset the circadian rhythm of individuals and improves sleep patterns.

Other remedies that can help your child sleep more include:

  • avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine or sugar, before bed
  • establishing a routine that you follow every night
  • turning off TV or video games at least an hour before bedtime and relaxing the child by playing soft music or by reading a book
  • adding light-blocking curtains to your child’s room to help prevent outside stimuli from disrupting them

Incorporate relaxation techniques

Behaviour problems are a common issue in people with ASD. Calming techniques, such as deep pressure massage or wearing weighted clothing, meditation and yoga, may soothe agitation in people with ASD.

How we can help

The best treatment or intervention for people with ASD can vary depending on an individual’s age, strengths, challenges, and differences. 

At Advanced Functional Medicine we adopt a thorough approach with a variety of advanced testing to get sufficient biochemical data on the patient.  We commonly use Stool testing, organic acids testing, extensive blood panels and often saliva and breath testing as part of the testing regime.

We then assess the patient and commence treatment to remove healing blocks and bring the biochemistry back in to balance.

A Functional Medicine approach will consider a person’s unique needs, address root causes and provide the best possible treatment through biochemical rebalancing. If you need help with reducing the symptoms of autism for an adult or a child, contact Advanced Functional Medicine via the form below to see how we can help.

Jarrod Cooper – ND

Jarrod Cooper – ND

Jarrod Cooper - ND is the founder of Advanced Functional Medicine Australia. He is a Naturopathic Doctor with extensive functional medicine training from leading practitioners in the USA and worldwide.

He is leading the way with advancements of functional medicine, clinically implementing worldwide best practices in Functional Medicine throughout Australia.

Jarrod consults in person from Perth, Western Australia and also online via Telehealth throughout Australia and worldwide.

If you are looking for personalised treatment, we highly recommend contacting Jarrod Cooper’s Advanced Functional Medicine clinic in Australia.

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