World Autism Awareness Day, celebrated on April 2nd.
Let me highlight some of the known reasons behind Autism (ASD). There is not one particular thing that causes Autism, making it a multi-factorial condition that requires a multi-factorial and holistic approach.
Autism affects boys more than it does girls.
What is the picture of Autism?
There are many neurodevelopmental disorders in a person with autism.
Key identifiers include:
- sensory issues (sight, smell, sound)
- problems communicating
- repetitive and self destructive behaviors
- mimicking others
- fixed focus on particular objects
- inability to initiate or maintain eye contact
- reference to ‘self’ as “I” or “me”
- social awkardness/impairment
- shouting, undesirable behavior
- learning difficulty
- sleep disorders
- mood disorders (anxiety, depression)
- poor concentration, difficulty remembering
- altered physical and neurological development
Factors influencing the predisposition to Autism
These again, are varied, however, it appears to be a culmination of factors that expose children to autism.
- Genetic defects
- Nutrient deficiencies and excesses
- Altered gut flora
- Diet, lifestyle and environmental influences
Let’s start with genetic defects. Our genes are influenced by internal and external environments. These gene defects affect the mitochondria of cells by interrupting the energy used by neurons. Many gene faults have been linked to autsim. Pten, SHANK2, SYNGAP1, DLGAP2 and X chromosome are just a few of these genes. There are likely to be issues in the methylation processes of the liver that lead to autism.
Nutrient deficiencies including vitamins B6, B12, niacin, C, E and D. Zinc, magnesium, selenium, folate, chromium, glutathione and essential fatty acids may also be deficient.
There may be an overload of copper in the body, which interacts with zinc, altering the zinc/copper ratio. Zinc is required to push copper away and keep levels in check.
Essential fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, are important in maintaining the integrity of cell walls. If cell walls are deficient in EFA’s, there is more susceptibility to assault from toxins, leaving the cells vulnerable to defects. Toxins include viruses and bacteria, heavy metals (lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium etc.), and this increased risk is often seen in-utero and shortly after birth. These can create an environment within the body that leads to gastrointestinal, immune, endocrine and central nervous system disruption.
Altered gut flora leads to dysbiosis and leaky gut. Dysbiosis occurs when the bad bacteria within the gut over-run the good bacteria. This then causes the wall of the gut to become damaged (leaky gut), creating an environment where nutrients and pathogens leave the gut and enter into the bloodstream. When this occurs, there may be food intolerance and sensitivity, or allergy-type symptoms. Receptor sites within the gastrointestinal tract and brain are affected by bacterial dysbiosis resulting in both gut and neurological symptoms (as mentioned above).
Diet and lifestyle factors that can affect genes include nutritionally deplete foods such as highly processed and refined foods, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Even whole foods that are farmed in mono-cultures and heavily sprayed with toxic chemicals have proven to affect genes. The modern farming techniques see a decline in decomposition of organic matter by bacteria, reduce the nutrient content of food and create an internal environment in the body that is not designed for and cannot process effectively. This can lead to an accumulation of heavy metals and dysfunction of liver detoxification pathways, as well as interrupt hormones.
To put it simply, neurotransmitters NEED amino acids, minerals and vitamins for appropriate and adequate synthesis. An imbalance of these 3 things leads to interruptions and problems in brain chemistry, particularly serotonin, noradrenaline and GABA (calming). Low GABA causes an increase in noradrenaline (stimulating) and this requires balance with zinc and vitamin B6. Noradrenaline is copper dependent and requires a fairly high amount of copper for synthesis (remember that a copper imbalance is often found in autism). Serotonin needs vitamin B6 for synthesis and production.
While I won’t get into serotonin, GABA and noradrenaline here, these neurotransmitters are especially important in healthy gut, brain and hormone function.
In conclusion, the importance of a healthy body and mind is paramount, particularly in pre-conception and post-natal care. Any of the nutrients that are deficient in this life-stage, affect the health and genetic predisposition of our children, and their risk of autism.
I have seen a number of children who display autistic traits later in life and this is primarily due to the heavy intake of processed and refined foods. A few dietary changes may be the key to improving mood and behavior in older children considered to be on the autism spectrum.
Getting to the cause of any underlying health and genetic conditions is especially important in the diagnostic process for autism, and these issues can be addressed nutritionally, both through supplementation and foods, and lifestyle changes to improve regulation and production of neurotransmitters associated with autism.
Families with children who have autism need support on an emotional and nutritional level. It takes a whole lot of work to care for autistic children, and a whole family approach is important. While the children experience severe and debilitating effects, so too does the rest of the family with increased stress and their own health concerns as a result. Please be careful how you ‘label’ a family with a child running through the mall shouting or uncontrollably touching everything in sight. They cannot help it. Shopping malls and ‘busy’ places are highly stimulating to an autistic child, and really upsets their already ‘upset’ delicate balance. Autism is VERY common, and without knowing why that child is acting the way s/he is, we are not to judge them or the family.