New Findings on Probiotics and Autism / What You Need to Know

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Brooke Conley
PUBLISHED
January 2017 in
DFWThrive
UPDATED
December 27, 2016
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Francheska Medina loved playing with her toddler son, Christian. Like most moms, she often videotaped him stacking blocks or testing out new words.
 
"He was such a happy baby and always smiling. He hit every milestone — some even early," remembers the Carrolton mother.
 
Christian walked at 9 months and began talking at just a year old, so it was a shock when Medina noticed his speech and social skills begin to slip around 14 months.
 
"He was always smiling and engaged, but over the course of several months, he stopped responding to his name and playing with toys,” she says. “He had no eye contact and lost all of his words."
 
Christian struggled with colic and acid reflux as an infant. As his second year wore on, he also began having bouts of diarrhea and constipation and grew increasingly irritable. He received a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) just before his third birthday.
 
"He was born a month premature, and I think his severe gastrointestinal issues, combined with certain environmental factors, culminated in a weakened immune system.” Medina opines. “Ultimately, his gut wasn't balanced enough to metabolize toxins, which I believe played a role in his autism symptoms developing."

 
Medina is not alone in her theory. While autism is primarily a disorder of the brain, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds many kids with autism also struggle with gastrointestinal issues such as chronic constipation, diarrhea, inflammatory bowel and “leaky gut” — more so than their neurotypically developing peers — causing some parents and experts to take a closer look at the correlation between a child’s GI health and an ASD diagnosis.
 
Dr. Constantine A. Kotsanis, medical director for the Kotsanis Institute in Grapevine, says the gut has a major influence on the digestive, immune, endocrine and detoxification systems, which, when imbalanced or overloaded, can contribute to an autism diagnosis.
 
And now a new study supports this notion and suggests that restoring microbial balance may alleviate some of autism’s behavioral symptoms.
 
Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine sought to correct gut imbalance using mice. In their study, published in Cell last year, they found that mice exhibited a reduction in autistic-like behaviors, such as social anxiety and reluctance to interact with peers, when they were treated with one strain of the probiotic — live, friendly bacteria — Lactobacillus reuteri, which occurs naturally in a healthy digestive tract and breast milk and can be found in some cultured dairy products such as yogurt.
 
But before you go depleting grocery store shelves of its Yoplait inventory, the solution may not be that simple. Kotsanis says that while the Baylor study is significant, manipulating just one gut microbe (single-cell organisms found in the digestive tract) is not enough. He says his pediatric patients benefit most from a combination of probiotics, clean water, organic foods and enzymes.
 
Rachel Wolverton, an occupational therapist in Plano, agrees. "When the gut is balanced and dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut flora) is corrected, a mental 'fog' clears, leading to better results in school and at home," she says. "[The] kids I treat, who are on probiotics and biomedical intervention, have more eye contact, language and social interaction than kids who are not. It's hard to get a brain to integrate therapy when there's a block in focus."
 
Shortly after Christian's diagnosis, Medina removed gluten and casein from his diet and introduced high-quality probiotics. He also began therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
 
"We saw changes immediately," she says.
 
The anecdotal evidence is compelling and may eventually lead to definitive findings, but experts caution that for now, more work is needed on gut bacteria and its impact on autism before probiotics, which aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), become a viable, suggested treatment. And experts recommend talking with your child’s doctor before trying probiotics or any other non-prescribed treatment.
 
Medina understands that her son’s progress is likely the result of several components working together. "I'm not going to say that probiotics are the only factor, but using them alongside a clean diet enabled [my son] to focus and pay attention in therapy,” she says.
 
Now 5, Christian has regained about 50 words in his vocabulary, can tie his shoes and was potty trained in a day.
 
“I truly feel if I had not healed his gut, then he would not be where he is today," Medina says.

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