The Autism epidemic in America continues to rise. The effects of it are far reaching through all communities. The data reports 1 in 59 children currently have autism which is a 15% increase from previous data sets from 2014. As the rates of Autism increase, the effects on families, schools, and communities is impacted. The medical community, for the most part, continues to suggest no cause and no reason for the development of Autism. However, since 1967 those most closely linked with Autism treatment have approached it as a whole body disorder. Research continues to indicate multiple body systems are involved in the development of Autism and particularly impactful being the gut/brain connection. What happens in the brain and behavior is a downstream effect from the body’s other biochemical processes.

Autism can be considered the “canary in the coalmine” alerting that something is wrong. The levels at which Autism is occuring is not simply happenstance, nor can it be contributed solely to earlier and better diagnosing. It is evident in research and clinical experience of multiple medical disciplines that those that develop Autism are the most sensitive and easily injured by toxins, nutrient deficiencies, and environmental stressors. This means if the environmental, nutritional and toxin related stressors continue as they currently are, Autism rates likely will continue to climb. Not only is there hope for the current generation of Autism, but even more so for the future generations when we are willing to face Autism as a whole body disorder of biochemistry imbalances which can be corrected.

Over the years, we have seen first hand children losing their diagnosis of Autism or ADHD. We have seen children return to mainstream classrooms and develop into typically developing children with exceptional academic and social/emotional skills. There is hope for Autism and with the principles of functional medicine and experienced practitioners, there is a way forward.

It is important to understand the ways in which the biochemistry is imbalanced in children with Autism, the impact of the gut/brain connection, and the impact food has on the areas of biochemical imbalances.  

Autism and The Imbalanced Biochemistry

Research and clinical practice indicate at least 6 areas are consistently found to be imbalanced in those with Autism. A child may have areas of concern in each of these areas or only one or two, but at a higher degree. Given there are at least six areas of concern to consider when looking at a root cause for Autism, it is easy to see how no clear cause has been established within the mainstream medical community. We have to be willing to see the interplay of the body as an entire system in order to see how Autism develops. Historically, conventional medicine is not as willing as the functional medicine community to consider how things like environmental toxins, food choices, and even body care products affect the interplay of biomechanical pathways from generation to generation. The body’s ability to maintain good function in each of these areas below is required for normal functioning, and when a child’s body is not up to the task, they exhibit brain and behavioral issues, now characterized as Autism but also including ADHD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and more.

6 Common Areas of Biochemistry Imbalances in Autism

  1. Improper digestion of gluten and casein,,
  2. Methylation malfunctions resulting in heavy metal overload ,,
  3. Inflammation,
  4. Inadequate detoxification
  5. Poor digestion and nutrient deficiencies,,
  6. Yeast overgrowth

The body needs a level of balance to continue to function properly. While the body is extremely adaptive and works nonstop to maintain and regain balance in a variety of body systems, there are ways in which the body cannot compensate. When toxins, food, stress, and genetic vulnerabilities are pushed beyond the capacity for the body to naturally course-correct, conditions like Autism develop. For some children, this began in the womb and for others it develops as their body develops and encounters more and more levels and variety of stress over time. One of the mysteries of Autism is that where and how these vulnerabilities will affect a child cannot be predetermined, however many of the causes of genetic and biological vulnerabilities are known. Because they are known, there is a way to detect the vulnerabilities and imbalances and correct them when they occur.

Autism and The Gut/Brain Connection

The Connection

Autism at its core is a gut reaction-  a variety of biochemical imbalances causing inflammation in the gut and the brain. This inflammatory response affects the whole body in a variety of ways. The gastrointestinal system is directly linked to the brain via the vagus nerve. This means literally any inflammation that occurs in the gut also occurs in the brain. It is extremely common to see children with Autism who also exhibit physical symptoms of diarrhea, constipation, bloating, GI pain, frequent infections, food allergies, sleep disturbances, and pain/inflammation. At the center of correcting and preventing Autism is to heal the gut. Nutrients are essential to every biochemical function in the brain. Adequate nutrients requires nutrient dense foods and proper digestion. If foods cannot be broken down well enough, they cannot be absorbed into the body to be used as nutrients appropriately.

Poor digestion comes from environmental factors like synthetic chemicals, food choices, and from genetic susceptibility. This poor digestion is also called leaky gut. It is also common to call neurological disorders like Autism and ADHD, “leaking brain,” because of this gut/brain connection. If the gut is leaky, so is the brain. This leaky gut/brain means the gut lining becomes damaged by chemicals from the environment, food, and inflammation, where larger molecules than should be able to escape through the semi-permeable gut lining, causing inflammation in the entire body. Again, because of the vagus nerve signalling directly from the gut to the brain, what happens in the gut, also happens in the brain when it comes to inflammatory load. Studies,, in children with Autism show leaky gut characterized by decrease in beneficial bacteria, increased inflammation, and an immune response to food.

Food and Autism

Food choices are at the crux of both cause and treatment of Autism because of the way the gut and brain rely on quality nutrients. Food matters and affects each of the 6 areas of concern for Autism listed above. Foods choices can help or hinder each of those processes. In the case of opiate production from gluten and casein, these food choices can be the very cause of Autism for some children and eliminating them is necessary for their progression.

It is imperative to note, however that one type of food therapy or type of eating plan will not be effective for every child with Autism, nor will only diet changes bring the full scope of progress than can be made in a child with Autism. Because Autism is a disorder of imbalanced biochemistry, there are many different reason why these systems are not working properly. A variety of diets have been found to help based on what the underlying cause of their imalances are. For some children, food chemicals in forms of additives and food dyes are the disruption that triggers their symptoms and subsequently can improve them. Yet for others it may be a methylation issue in which their bodies are unable to detoxify chemicals from pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified foods. The genetic and systemic vulnerabilities in the bodies of children with autism require special attention to finding the types of foods that work best with their body while at the same time balancing/supporting the systems that react so strongly to certain foods, dyes, and additives in hopes of diminishing those reactions and regaining brain and behavior functions.

Although diet changes needed are specific for each child, there are four food principles that can be applied as the lens through which to view the need and way forward with diet changes. It is well established that one specific and standard diet for Autism does not work. It is also just as true that food absolutely matters in restoring the functionality of overburdened body systems. This is why we use these food principles from Julie Matthews, author of  Nourishing Hope for Autism,  instead of a food prescription.

Four Food Principles for Autism

  1. Remove inflammatory foods
  2. Add foods that heal the gut
  3. Add foods that supply beneficial bacteria (probiotic)
  4. Add foods that increase beneficial bacteria (prebiotic)

When these principles guide the food choices, digestion improves which means more nutrients are absorbed, nutrient deficiencies lessen, and the real changes begin.  

Autism and The Way Forward

The functional medicine approach to Autism uses comprehensive assessment, laboratory data, and nutrition intervention to understand the biochemical imbalances, replete nutritional deficiencies, and support or “shore up” vulnerable/weak biochemical pathways like detoxification and digestion. The nature of Autism affects kids whose genetic pathways are more susceptible to disruption than others. This means there is a lot of hope for Autism because those pathways can be strengthened, cleaned up, and repleted.

Practically, this process will include the combination of the right food plan based on the data from your child, and the food principles above. Then other means of detoxing and supporting the imbalanced pathways are used such as: nutritional supplementation, IV Nutrition Therapy, heavy metal chelation, detoxification protocols, etc. The combined approach of these treatment modalities means a step by step approach can be implemented that your child can tolerate. We work alongside you, and the others in your support team such as speech, occupational and physical therapy to help implement the treatments needed. We understand it can feel overwhelming when you have an extremely picky eaters, or a child with with high texture or food aversions, or whom new experiences, schedule changes, and new people are particularly difficult, but this is exactly why we are here with you every step of the way to help your child gain freedom, resilience, adaptability, and body and mind they need and want to thrive.

The functional medicine approach to Autism takes patience and time, but the results are life altering for all involved. Your child has hope for progress. As with any condition, there is no way to determine what the final outcome will be or how long results will take, and we also know there is nothing like seeing your child happy, peaceful, and having developmental breakthroughs!  When Autism is viewed through the lens of imbalanced biochemistry, poor digestion and weakened detoxification pathways rather than an unexplained condition with no cure and no expectation of progress, lives change and families become empowered.

As a functional medicine team, we are committed to the empowerment of individuals in their health journey, and families navigating Autism is no different. In fact, it is one of the greatest joys of our practice. To walk alongside a family taking a functional medicine approach to Autism is a deep honor for our practitioners because we know not only how hard Autism is, but we also know that conventional medical approaches tend to limit and underestimate the potential we see in your child. Let’s link arms to break through all those barriers and limits to see your child thrive.

Dr Corey Priest, DC - Functional medicine practitioner

About the author

Dr. Corey Priest has been practicing functional medicine since 2001. in2GREAT was founded in 2014 by Dr Priest after 13 years of experience with his other practices. Over his career, Dr. Priest has worked with and helped well over 10,000 patients under a functional medicine model.

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