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Autism Spectrum Disorder A Functional Medicine Perspective

Written by

Deborah Freudenmann BHSc

Only a few generations ago, the children that suffered from autism were sent away to psychological institutions. Today, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 54 school aged children within the USA are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism remains to be one of the least understood and most controversial diseases from the elusive cause to the treatment options.

There is no easy answer to this complex and multifaceted condition. This blog post is not intended to oversimplify this condition but merely provide some insight into the functional medicine understanding and approach to autism. For many parents who live within this reality, I would like to take a moment and say how strong and proud you should be, YOU are incredible.

Understanding Autism

ASD refers to a wide range of disorders characterised by difficulties in speech and nonverbal communication, lack of social skills, and repetitive behaviours. The medical community defines autism as a psychiatric disorder, however with a functional medicine understanding it should be classified as a neurological disorder. Autism is based on a set of biochemical imbalances that create neurological and neurotransmitter imbalances, which result in psychological symptoms. More often than not, you are taught that mental health is genetic, and cannot be changed but “sometimes” managed. Well, this needs to change! Psychological disorders are symptoms with root causes.

Research studies have revealed that autism is influenced by the combination of environmental and genetic factors. Each person with ASD possesses a unique set of challenges and strengths. The symptoms of ASD can affect the routine activities of the individual by affecting their ability to learn, think, and manage life situations. In spite of these challenges, there have been many cases where individuals with autism have been able to lead an independent life in adulthood.

So far, the treatments of autism spectrum disorder largely involved improving the social skills of a child, correcting behavioural challenges, and teaching occupational skills. The aim of these treatments was to allow them to be socially acceptable and financially independent during their adulthood.

However, although important these approaches never get to the underlying root causes. In order to support a child with ASD, it is imperative to identify the functional causes of autism and the subsequent imbalances.

Common Implications In Autism

Understanding some of the root causes and common links of autism is essential for improving the symptoms and the quality of life of the individual.

Liver & Detoxification

Research studies have shown that children with ASD have significantly higher levels of toxic metabolites. The liver is a major detoxification organ and it works in two phases. Phase I and Phase II must work together in harmony for successful detoxification. Phase I liver detoxification processes toxins with enzymes called Cytochrome P450 enzymes turning them into more water soluble toxic intermediary metabolites. These toxic metabolites need to pass through Phase II and bind to a substance which neutralises the toxin.  However, what is often found in those with ASD is that Phase II is slow meaning that the toxic metabolites from Phase I are overflowing into the system and causing even more damage. In addition, research has shown that mercury toxicity is more common in children with ASD as they struggle to excrete the heavy metal compared to children without ASD. Therefore, it is very important to assess the level of toxicity and support these pathways appropriately. 

Genetic Weaknesses

There is evidence to suggest that autism could be genetically linked. This means that genes might play a critical role in determining the risk of developing developmental abnormalities like autism. Scientific studies have also implicated genetic polymorphisms and mutations as the risk factors for autism. The methylation impairments or mutations provide so much detail towards the understanding of ASD. As methylation is important for detoxification, digestion, gut integrity and microbial balance, immune function, cellular and metabolic functions…

Inflammation & Immune System

Do you see how interconnected it all is? Inflammation in another part of the body can create inflammation in the brain…

Research studies have indicated that the risk of autism could be linked to the multifactorial and complex immune interactions. It has been found that the risk of autism is higher in children whose mothers suffered from an autoimmune disorder or infection during pregnancy. The findings have also revealed increased levels of pro-inflammatory substances such as cytokines and interleukins secreted by the immune cells in patients with autism. These findings suggest the link between the immune system dysfunctions, inflammation, and the risk of autism.

Gut Health & Digestion

The digestive system is affected in a very high percentage of children with autism. The human microbiome is a collection of trillions of microorganisms which populate the intestines. Your microbiome is essentially its very own complex ecosystem. Although the microbiome consists of a diverse range of microorganisms, it is primarily populated with bacteria which are located in the gut. Your microbiome is a complex ecological community, which communicates, evolves with you and your environment. The symbiotic relationship between your body and your gut is important to understand. You depend on your gut microbiome and your gut microbiome depends on you. One cannot thrive without the other. The gut is often called the second brain due to the intricate communication between the “gut-brain axis”. In a study it was compared that children with autism have a different gut microbiome diversity compared to the children without ASD. Another study found that mice with a similar lack of gut bacteria diversity presented with autism like symptoms. Dysbiotic microorganisms in the gut can create toxins that affect brain function. Furthermore, intestinal permeability and food sensitises are also very common in autistic individuals – which causes inflammation both systemically and in the brain.

Endocrine Function


The functions of the endocrine glands are affected in patients with autism. It can cause an imbalance in the production and release of hormones that regulate the physiological and reproductive functions. Thyroid disorder is generally higher in autism than the general population. When one part is imbalanced within the endocrine system it also affects the other parts.

Neurological Function

ASD is known to hamper the functions of the nervous system. It could affect the balance of the stress hormone called cortisol and feel-good hormones like dopamine in the nervous system and thus, contribute to anxiety and hyperactivity.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors and other biochemical pathways such as exposure to toxins could create disruptions or imbalances in the functions of the nervous system and trigger the development of autism. For example; the physical and mental health of the mother during pregnancy is found to influence the risk of autism in the child. Similarly, the use of certain medications especially anti-epileptic drugs by the mother during pregnancy could also pose a risk of autism in the baby.

Nutritional Strategies To Improve Deficiencies

Several research studies aimed at evaluating the role of diet and nutrition in the management of ASD have revealed encouraging results. The findings of these studies have demonstrated the need to prevent nutritional deficiencies in autistic children.

Common deficiencies include: Vitamin B1, B3, B5, B6, B12, Zinc, Selenium, Biotin, Vitamin A, C, Taurine, Folate and essentially fatty acids.

The Role of Anti-Inflammatory, Low Reactive Healing, And Nutrient Dense Diet

Inflammation linked to immune system dysfunction plays a key role in triggering and worsening the symptoms of autism. Research studies have suggested that the consumption of foods having natural anti-inflammatory properties could help control the inflammatory reaction.
Healthy fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids are particularly revered for their ability to regulate the production of pro-inflammatory substances. These healthy fats would control the release of interleukins and cytokines by the immune cells and thus, inhibit inflammatory damage to the brain and neurons.
The intake of healthy fats like omega 3 fatty acids is particularly recommended to inhibit inflammation and limit the implications of ASD.
Children with autism are also advised to increase their intake of healing nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to avoid the deficiencies known to worsen the symptoms. Eating a nutritious diet containing natural sources of vitamins A, B, C, and E as well as minerals such as magnesium, calcium, and iron would restore the body’s physiological functions. Often the most important first step in any diet is removing gluten and dairy. These are common triggers.
Similarly, natural antioxidants like phenols and polyphenols is also expected to protect healthy tissues against free racial damage. This would ensure faster healing of damaged tissues and reduce the risk of autism-linked abnormalities.

Conclusion

It is possible to improve the symptoms of ASD by identifying and addressing the functional causes and nutritional deficiencies linked to it. Although it might be daunting, piecing all the parts together is a crucial step. It’s where you step into a detective role. I would like to finish this blog post by saying YOU are your child’s best advocate.

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  • 3 Responses

    1. Great blog focusing on one of the true epidemics of our time affecting all of us. Gut health is key in any functional approach to any condition as it is the core of our functional being. A few thoughts…
      Glutathione- Methionine and cysteine are precursors for glutathione and contribute to its synthesis. NAC in supplement form is a powerful Glutathione precursor. Silymarin, the active substance in milk thistle has been found to increase Glutathione levels in the liver by up to 50%. Glutathione is essential in the detox of mercury as well as Acetaminophen (Tylenol), Penicillin, Tetracycline and other toxic metals like lead and cadmium.
      Inflammation via cytocines activated by the CCR5 pathway and IL-6 appear to be very active in this condition. There are some EXTREMELY exciting CCR5 blockers that calm this cytokine production big time, unfortunately, neither is readily available. The first, a natural substance is Anibamine. The other is a monoclonal antibody (Leronlimab) and is currently being tested for licensing for other applications. I hold great hope that these two will be a game changer in dealing with the development and possibly reversal of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
      Besides ‘treating’ the condition, focus should be placed on prevention and limiting or eliminating contributing factors, especially at the time of early diagnosis before the condition has developed into a debilitating condition.
      There are many common neurotoxins which should be avoided. The problem is, none of us know whether we have genetic susceptibility until severe damage has been done. Maybe we should all be avoiding these neurotoxins like the plague?
      Be well

      1. Thank you kindly Darren for your wonderful words! You are very right, there is so much within functional medicine that we can do to address this epidemic. Not only “treating or addressing” the condition itself but also preventing the development for all future generations and parents. It is certainly difficult in our era to completely avoid all these neurotoxins but we can certainly support our systems to do the best possible.
        With much appreciation
        Deborah

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