Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gut Instincts

Recently, Massachusetts General Hospital published a news release sharing new research that autism parents have suspected for many years. The article entitled, “Study finds alterations in both blood-brain barrier and intestinal permeability in individuals with autism,” details the research of Dr. Alessio Fasano and Dr. Maria Rosario Florentino. [To read this article, please click here.] According to Dr. Florentino, “As far as we know, this is the first study to look at the molecular signature of the blood-brain barrier dysfunction in ASD [autism spectrum disorders] and schizophrenia in samples from human patients.” Their studies found alterations of genes in autism tissue samples, suggesting that intestinal issues lead to inflammation of the nervous system, which contributes to autism.

One of the factors behind this research study was the significant number of gastrointestinal issues found in people with autism. Dr. Fasano notes, “As well as information on the blood-brain barrier, we were looking for more information on how increased permeability, otherwise known as ‘leaky gut,” might affect the development of ASD in the context of a dysfunctional gut-brain axis.” The blood-brain barrier, a semi-permeable membrane is designed to protect the brain from harmful substances. The intestines also help protect the brain by not allowing toxins in the bloodstream. However, with leaky gut syndrome, the intestines do not work properly and can leak harmful substances into the bloodstream that could harm the nervous system.

Dr. Florentino plans to research next how microorganisms in the gut contribute to leaky gut and behavior, hoping to improve issues with behavior in autism as well as gastrointestinal problems. Considering how prevalent leaky gut syndrome, food sensitivities, yeast overgrowth, and digestive problems are in people with autism, this research will undoubtedly prove helpful.

While mainstream medicine will view the research by these two doctors as groundbreaking, this information supports what parents and truly innovative doctors treating autism have known for years. In his 1998 book, Biological Treatments for Autism and PDD, Dr. William Shaw clearly addresses the gastrointestinal problems people with autism face, implicates the underlying causes for these issues, and explains how to treat these conditions with dietary changes, digestive enzymes, probiotics, antifungals, and nutritional supplements. Indeed, many children with autism have made improvements following the guidelines of Dr. Shaw and his innovative contemporaries who recognize the connection between the gut and the brain. My own copy of Dr. Shaw’s book is dog-eared, highlighted, and marked with many marginal notes. For me, his truly “comprehensive and easy-to-read guide” has been crucial to helping Alex deal with the various gut issues that have affected his health and behavior.

With Alex, three pursuits were necessary to address his digestive issues. First, once we discovered through blood tests that he had a sensitivity to the proteins in milk and grains, we put him on a casein-free and gluten-free diet, which he has followed faithfully since he was seven years old. Glutens and caseins can inflame his digestive system, causing irritation. Paired with leaky gut syndrome, these substances can escape the digestive system and wreak havoc on the nervous system.
Secondly, we tested him for heavy metal toxins, and these tests revealed that he had high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and aluminum. Under the direction of a holistic osteopath, he underwent oral chelation therapy with the sulfur-based prescription, DMSA, which bonded with the heavy metals to remove them from his body. In addition, we tested him for nutritional deficiencies and discovered that he needed to take supplements of vitamins B, C, and D to support his immune system.

Finally, the greatest battle was killing the yeast beast, candida overgrowth that stubbornly clung to his mouth and the rest of his digestive tract, making him irritable and even aggressive. While this treatment took years and a variety of antifungals, such as the medications Diflucan, Nystatin, Ketaconazole, and Itraconazole, along with the supplements caprylic acid, oregano, garlic, and undecenoic acid, we knew that we had to overcome this gastrointestinal problem for Alex to get better. Paired with probiotics to boost the good bacteria, this rotation of antifungals, along with an improved immune system aided by nutritional supplements, has helped Alex tremendously. Thankfully, we have not seen any evidence of yeast overgrowth in nearly a year, and we are hopeful that his gut is finally healed.

Although the research by Drs. Fasano and Florentino may not be news to autism parents who have followed guidance of cutting-edge doctors like Dr. Shaw, the mainstream medical community’s recognition of the connection between the gut and the brain may indeed bring hope and healing to those dealing with autism. Not only are we getting closer to finding causes for issues in autism, but we also hope and pray that we are getting closer to a cure.

“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous––how well I know it.” Psalm 139:14

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