Autism has skyrocketed over the years, from an estimated 1 child in 3,000 to just 1 in 150 kids today. Improved diagnosis techniques may explain some of this increase but not an increase of this magnitude. Simultaneously, the rates of medication use have been skyrocketing for these kids. Stimulants, anti-psychotics (one of the fastest growing drug categories), anti-seizure medicine, and more have been given to autistic children without significant benefit.
Our thinking about autism has changed over the years. In the 1960s, autism was thought to be caused by poor mothering. Now, many physicians and lay people believe that autism is a genetic brain disorder. However, the science shows that there are other factors that contribute to these increased rates of autism among our population. Recent research shows that our toxic environment affects (triggers) certain genes in people susceptible to this condition. Therefore, autism should be treated as a systemic body disorder that affects the brain.
Autism - What happens when things go wrong?
Martha Herbert, MD, a pediatric neurologist from Harvard Medical School has demonstrated how imbalances in our digestion and absorption of nutrients, immune dysfunction, and detoxification problems play a central role in causing the behavioral and mood changes associated with autism. She has demonstrated that there is a connection between the various signs and symptoms that autistic children have, such as smelly bowel movements, bloated bellies, frequent colds and ear infections, and dry skin, and their brain function. This new way of thinking about mental diseases, and diseases in general, is based on systems biology, and it is known as Functional Medicine.
- Biochemical individuality – We are all biochemically unique. That means that if you take 100 kids with autism, each one has unique genetics and their causes or triggers for their autism will be different. Therefore, our treatments need to be tailored to their biochemical and genetic predispositions and their specific causes of autism. For example, some of the autistic children are genetically unable to produce sufficient glutathione, which is the body's main antioxidant and major detoxification pathway for getting rid of metals and pesticides. Another key biochemical function that may be impaired in autistic children is called methylation, which helps us to get rid of toxins and also to make specific brain chemicals such us neurotransmitters.
- Vaccines – Many of our children receive over 2 dozen vaccinations at a very young age. These many vaccines can overwhelm their immune system or simply intoxicate them with the ethylmercury (thimerosal) preservative used until recently in most vaccines. Thimerosal is still present in most flu vaccines. Often parents describe how their child was happy and normal before vaccinations. However, after receiving those vaccines, he lost his language abilities and became detached unable to relate in normal ways with his parents and other children. These are all signs of autism.
- Toxins & Toxicants – The inability to detoxify and eliminate the byproducts of our metabolism or the toxicants that we are exposed to in the air we breathe, the foods that we eat, or the medicines that we take may affect these predisposed children more than the rest of us. High levels of aluminum, lead, antimony, and arsenic, have been measured in the blood and hair analysis of autistic children. These neurotoxins become even more damaging when the body is depleted of sulfur and glutathione, two major detoxifying ingredients necessary to get rid of these metals. It is not only the insults from the toxicants but also their combination with nutritional deficiencies piled on susceptible genetic predispositions that lead to the biochemical imbalances we see in these autistic children.
- Nutritional Deficiencies – Laboratory testing has helped us identify several nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamins, minerals, beneficial fats, and amino acids. Autistic children may test low in zinc, magnesium, manganese, vitamins A, B12, and D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Missing these necessary nutrients prevents them from producing energy in in our cellular generators, our mitochondria.
- Food Allergies and Intolerances – Often, these children have measurable food allergies and intolerances, such as high level of antibodies to gluten, dairy, eggs, yeast, soy, and many other foods. Consuming allergenic foods leads to an intestinal inflammatory response and increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), which eventually becomes systemic thus affecting their nervous system.
- Increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) - The immune system in the gut of these children shows high levels of inflammatory markers (i.e., eosinophil protein X).
- Imbalanced bacteria in the gut – often we see yeast overgrowth in the intestine and insufficient or no growth of healthy bacteria. Urine tests may reveal high levels of D-lactate, an indicator of overgrowth of bacteria or D-Arabinitol, which is a marker of excessive fungal overgrowth in the small intestine.
- Inflammation and Oxidative stress - high levels of oxidative stress or free radical activity are present in the autistic children indicating that their brains are under attack.
Treating autism as a systemic functional disorder that affects the brain gives us many other treatment options. We need to start by identifying the metabolic imbalances described above. Knowing the causes and the individual predispositions reduces the treatment to 3 simple steps:
- Replace - put in the necessary nutrients that help their genes work better (vitamins, minerals, digestive aids, good bacteria/probiotics, detoxifying agents, etc.)
- Remove - get rid of the bad (food allergens, inflammation, oxidative stress, infections, toxicants, etc.)
- Rebalance the system (fix digestion and absorption, detoxification, neurotransmitter function, etc.)
Children treated using an integrative functional medicine approach can often have dramatic and remarkable recoveries. Like all of us, children with behavior problems, ADHD, or autism are unique. Therefore, it is important to identify their specific pathways to healing.
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