Researchers highlight the link between gut health and autism
03/03/2020 // Tracey Watson // Views

According to statistics released by the Autism Society, one in every 59 babies born in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and more than 3.5 million Americans live with this condition. The number of children diagnosed with ASD has increased by a staggering 119.4 percent since 2000, and it is the United States’ fastest growing developmental disability.

Scientists have struggled to explain this massive increase in patients with ASD, but researchers are examining various possible causes. A recent study sought to examine one of these possible links: the connection between gut health and ASD. The results of their study were published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains that ASD is a disorder that affects both communication and behavior. It is defined as a developmental disorder because symptoms generally occur between birth and the age of 2.

The NIMH explains further:

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide created by the American Psychiatric Association used to diagnose mental disorders, people with ASD have:

  • Difficulty with communication and interaction with other people
  • Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors
  • Symptoms that hurt the person’s ability to function properly in school, work, and other areas of life

Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. (Related: Drink green tea to improve gut health and fight obesity.)


The link between gut health and ASD

With so many questions around the causes of ASD, researchers from the University of California, Davis, set out to determine the link between gut health, immunity and ASD.

Their study was a logical next step, because although ASD primarily affects the brain, many ASD patients exhibit a higher level of gastrointestinal issues than the rest of the population. In fact, one study found that people with ASD were up to eight times more likely to experience gastrointestinal problems like constipation, bloating and diarrhea than their peers. And, other studies have found that ASD patients who exhibit such gastrointestinal problems also tend to experience the most severe symptoms.

For their study, the researchers examined 103 children between the ages of 3 and 12. As explained by Medical News Today, the participants were divided into four groups:

  • children with ASD and GI (gastrointestinal) problems (ASD+GI)
  • children with ASD who did not exhibit GI problems (ASD)
  • TD (typically developing) children with GI problems (TD+GI)
  • TD children without GI problems (TD)

To evaluate the immune responses and gut bacteria levels of the participants, blood and stool samples were collected from all the participants.

Medical News Today reported on their findings:

Children in the ASD+GI group showed a number of differences compared with the other three groups. For instance, they had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines — which are signaling molecules that promote inflammation — such as interleukin 5 (IL-5), IL-15, and IL-17.

Both the ASD+GI and ASD children had lower levels of TGF beta 1, a protein that helps regulate the immune system and keep it in check. The fact that this change was measured in both groups is an interesting finding; it suggests that children with ASD but no GI symptoms could be experiencing other inflammatory conditions.

The research made another interesting discovery: All the ASD participants – whether or not they displayed GI symptoms – had completely different gut flora populations than the typically developing children.

First author, Paul Ashwood, noted, “This immune activation is not helping these children. It might not be causing autism — we don’t know that yet — but it’s certainly making things worse.”

He added, “It’s a step toward understanding co-morbidities that are present in at least half of children with ASD, and working out which of these children may respond well to certain types of therapies. Although it’s still early, this work suggests we need to find ways to ease inflammation to help these children.”

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