Written by Elizabeth Boham, MD
A Functional Medicine Approach to Autism

A Functional Medicine Approach to Autism

As of March 2016, the CDC estimated that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Key diagnostic criteria for ASD include repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, or activities and deficits in social interaction and language.  The recommended early intensive behavioral therapy can be helpful, but many times there is much more that we can do!

One of the most rewarding things I do every day at The Ultrawellness Center is work with children on the autism spectrum.  Often I am able to help many of them improve their communication and function.  

The concepts of functional medicine are well suited for disorders like autism.  There is a wide range of severities and a wide range of causes for children with autism, so not every child is the same.  Functional medicine recognizes this and looks for the triggers that caused imbalances in the patient’s body.

When I see a child on the autism spectrum, I always start with the following 6 principles of Functional Medicine to help decrease the patient’s symptoms:

  1. Work to decrease inflammation.  Excessive inflammation in the body can impact brain development.  Exploring the causes of inflammation can help to reduce the symptoms of autism.  Some common causes include food allergies/sensitivities, imbalances in the gut bacteria, and infections.  The following steps include more information on how to treat these causes of inflammation.
  1. One of the first things I recommend is that the child does a trial gluten and dairy free diet.  This can be helpful for many reasons.  There are components of gluten and dairy that can cross the blood-brain barrier and impact the neurological system.  This causes symptoms such as confusion, fatigue, fluctuations in mood, and attention issues.  Gluten and dairy can also be a cause of inflammation for some people, impacting brain development.  In addition, antibodies against dairy have been found to block an important receptor in the brain for  a number of autistic patients.  This receptor is called the folate receptor. Folate receptor antibodies have been found in many children with autism and is one of the reasons that many parents notice significant changes when they change their child’s diet.  Changing your child’s diet can be difficult, but by implementing a strict gluten and dairy free diet, you may start to see some changes in your child’s health.  I recommend that you work with a nutritionist to make sure that your child is getting adequate nutrients after eliminating gluten and dairy. Here are a few tips to help families transition to a gluten and dairy free diet: http://www.ultrawellnesscenter.com/2017/08/21/improving-autism-spectrum-disorders-asd-does-a-gluten-and-dairy-free-diet-really-make-a-difference/
  1. Pay attention to the digestive system.  Multiple studies have shown that there is a correlation between autism and gastrointestinal symptoms.   Many children on the autism spectrum have symptoms of bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain.  We evaluate the gut microbiota and use treatment to help improve the balance of the bacteria and yeast in the gastrointestinal system.  Try using a good quality probiotic and a digestive enzyme if your child has these symptoms.  
  1. Try a cod liver oil supplement.  This is a great supplement for many reasons.  It is rich in omega-3 fats which are naturally anti-inflammatory.  Essential fatty acids, also found in cod liver oil, are necessary for proper brain development.  Additionally, cod liver oil is naturally rich in vitamins A and D. .  These fat-soluble vitamins are very important for your health.  Vitamin A is critical for eye health and adequate intake may even have an influence on your child’s eye contact.  Vitamin D has many important functions in the body including supporting the immune system.  A typical dose of cod liver oil is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon a day.
  1. Avoid refined and processed foods.  That seems simple, but additives that can cause behavioral problems and digestive issues are found in many products.  Avoid anything with added food coloring and do your best to provide your child with whole foods at every meal.  
  1. Put your child on a good quality multivitamin/mineral formula. Vitaspectrum by Prothera is a good multivitamin that is specifically formulated for children on the autistic spectrum.   We often see some nutritional deficiencies in children on the spectrum, either because of inadequate intake, poor absorption, or a genetic variation that increases their individual needs.  A good multivitamin is a great addition for most children.  

If these changes are not enough, I recommend that you see a doctor to investigate other imbalances in the body that might be the root cause.  At the UltraWellness Center, we often work to support the mitochondria (which influences the body’s energy production) with carnitine, CoQ10, and B vitamins.  We test for genetic variations that influence a person’s need for certain nutrients.  We test for toxins, including heavy metals, and then work to help support the body’s natural detoxification system.

The above 6 steps are a great start and will often have a positive impact on your child’s health and development.  

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