Groundbreaking early research hit mainstream recently with the release of a study identifying a little known trigger of Autism within the medical world.
Researchers have identified a strong correlation between bacteria and inflammation in both mothers and their baby, and it all starts…in the gut.
A little something known as the “brain-gut connection.”
LATEST AUTISM RESEARCH
Two separate reports, recently released from MIT and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, found that the composition of bacteria populations and inflammation in the mother’s gut can influence whether maternal infection leads to autistic-like behaviors in offspring. They also discovered the specific brain changes from the gut-bacteria that produce these behaviors.
While further research and human studies will continue, these findings support earlier studies revealing similar things.
A May 2017 study in Nature identified distinct neural changes similar to Autism from certain strains of bacteria in the gut. And a 2014 study in the same publication found that the inflammation in the immune system (which is housed and created in the gut) is directly related to the presentation of Autism as well.
Furthermore, a 2010 study of ALL children born in Denmark born between 1980 and 2005 found that severe viral infections (stemming from the gut where the immune system is housed), during the first trimester of pregnancy translated to a threefold risk for autism, as well as that serious bacterial infections during the second trimester were linked with a 1.42-fold increase in risk.
And, lastly, general research overall on the correlation between gut bacteria and brain health clearly demonstrate that gut bacteria impact individual human behavior, social cues and cultural interactions (Castro et al, 2013)
In short: Something is in the water….or in the gut…
AUTISM 101: WHAT IT IS
As for understanding the “brain gut connection” in “action,” such as in Autism, it’s important to first understand what Autism is.
Autism or “autism spectrum disorder (ASD)” is a modern day chronic disease of the 21st century that affects approximately 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls)—a 119-percent (or more) increase in prevalence since 2000 (1 in 150).
And this increase is not just because doctors are screening more for autism now than in 2000. While the diagnostic criteria for autism has broadened with new DSM-5 in place today, compared to 2000, like the obesity, diabetes and autoimmune disease “epidemics,” the dramatic rise in prevalence of the disorder has still been a head scratcher for many clinicians.
Autism is characterized as “a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts,” with individuals typically displaying behaviors and symptoms, such as:
- Fixation (on things, concepts, ideas)
- Social “awkwardness” (Poor social skills and cues)
- Repetitive behaviors (hand-flapping, rocking, jumping and twirling, arranging and rearranging objects, and repeating sounds, words, or phrases)
- Difficulty processing and integrating sensory information, or stimuli (i.e. sights, sounds smells, tastes and/or movement)
- Poor verbal communication and processing (speech delays at a young age)
- Gut health imbalances and GI conditions
Diagnosing Autism however, can be difficult, since there is no medical test, like a blood test, to diagnose the disorders. Instead, doctors (namely psychologists and psychiatrists) look at the child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis, based on DSMV-5 criteria.
Once diagnosed, “Autism” (from a health and treatment outcomes approach) has been called treatable, but not “curable”—meaning Autism cannot be undone, but individuals can learn to live and function to the best of their own unique abilities.
Often times treatment involves the help of an Occupational Therapist, as well as potentially ABA Therapy (Autism Behavior Therapy) , Speech Therapy, Physical Therapy, Recreational Therapy and/or Psychotherapy. And while these therapies are tremendously helpful (hello, I am an occupational therapist), a key player (or two) often MISSING in the Autism treatment plan is…a nutritionist and/or functional medicine practitioner—treatment team members who understand this little known “brain-gut connection.”
Considering the prevalence of “GI conditions” alone in kids with Autism (such as constipation, sensory food preferences, loose stools, PICA-eating non-food items, and nutrient deficiencies), it’s no wonder the gut may play a role in an individual’s presentation of the disease.
Additionally, for conceiving and breastfeeding mothers, it’s vital that she—and the partner—are both aware of the vital role gut health (and inflammation) play in brain health.
THE BRAIN CONNECTION
The bottom line of the latest Autism Research?
Our brains are affected by our gut—specifically our gut bacteria.
The health of our gut “microbiome” (where TRILLIONS of bacteria breed( influences both the inflammation as well as “brain signals” (neurotransmitters) that fire to our brain.
In fact, did you know that:
- 90% of your serotonin levels—your “feel good” and mood brain chemicals—are made in your gut, and bacteria themselves actually are responsible for producing this serotonin (Yano et al, 2015)
- The neurons in your gut generate as much dopamine as those in your brain— (dopamine is the brain chemical messenger responsible for your decision making and thought processing, like what to eat, how you learn and whether or not your become addicted to drugs.
- And, your vagus nerve—(the nerve that controls digestion and other involuntary patterns and commands, such as keeping the heart rate constant, blinking and your “knee-jerk” reactions like what you do when you see blood or anxiety over public speaking, etc.)—runs directly from your frontal lobe in your brain to your gut.
And since your neurons and vagus nerve are CONSTANTLY sending “updated” sensory information upstream to your brain….
What do you think happens when your digestion or gut health is “off?”
Answer: Your brain health will be “off.”
Enter: The brain-gut connection.
Autism alone is just one piece of the puzzle.
The “brain gut” connection phenomenon goes far deeper, explaining the presentation of other mental illnesses, mood imbalances and “mental struggles,” including:
- Eating Disorders
- Bi-polar disorders
- And just about any other “mental” imbalance you can think of
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT?: HEALING THE BRAIN-GUT IN PRACTICE
So what to do about it?!
For the past several years in my clinical practice as both an Occupational Therapist, Nutritionist and Functional Medicine Practitioner, I’ve had the privilege to work with hundreds individuals of all ages who don’t understand why—with all the therapy, DBT work, SSRI’s (medications) or meditation in the world—they are not “getting better.”
Sure they can learn to manage their symptoms and learn positive skills to cope with anxiety, depression, disordered eating thoughts and more, but where is the lightbulb to not just treat, but heal and cure?
Answer: Look to the gut.
It may sound simplistic, and, to a degree, it is.
Sometimes in healthcare it seems we try to make rocket science out of treatment plans, diagnoses and “cures,” than the human body itself has to be.
Addressing gut health, at least as a starting place, however, is a place where very few doctors, psychologists, therapists and other health professionals rarely start.
What does “addressing gut health” actually mean?
1.) Starting with a basic lifestyle and “gut health” practice in your daily life including:
- Eating a diet based on real whole foods, including proteins, fats, veggies and water, and decreasing/eliminating intake of processed and refined foods
- Drinking half your bodyweight in ounces of water each day
- Getting 7-9 hours of sleep
- Moving your body most days of the week
- Incorporating stress-relieving activities and practice into your lifestyle (play, passions, fun, break from screens, people connection)
- Incorporating probiotics and fermented foods into the daily diet
2.) Partnering with a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner for assessing individual health status, and potentially testing for any underlying gut imbalances and health markers through a combination of blood testing, stool testing, breath testing, organic acids testing
3.) Based on findings, implementing a “gut healing” protocol, which may involve a short-term supplement protocol, certain nutrition and/or lifestyle changes
The vast majority (90 to 95%) of my clients have success with this approach in “treating” and addressing their personal “brain-gut” conundrum.
There is magic in simplicity.
Want to “treat” or support your own mental health and well-being? Or figure out your own brain-gut connection?
Connect with me here to schedule an initial consult, which entails a functional medicine, nutrition and therapeutic approach to your well-being.