There is some research that suggests harmful microbes in the gut, or digestive system, can worsen some of the behavior issues associated with autism. There are also medical professionals who believe an unhealthy gut microbiome (the collection of microorganisms that make up the gastrointestinal tract) could contribute to the development of autism. Probiotics, or beneficial microbes, could play a role in helping reduce some of these issues.
The Purpose of Probiotics
Probiotics come in many different types of fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut and others, such as kombucha or kim chi. But since it would be almost impossible to obtain the number of probiotics you need in your system through diet alone, many people turn to probiotic supplements. These are capsules, powders or drinks that contain a wide variety of “good” bacteria and yeasts, and are designed to help ensure a proper balance between beneficial and harmful microbes in the gut.
One of the most common types of good bacteria used to benefit the gut is lactic acid bacteria. The food industry commonly uses these bacteria because they help lower the pH of certain products and reduce the chances for spoilage. In fact, lactic acid bacteria also helps give yogurt its distinctive taste.
Autism actually refers to a variety of problems collectively known as “autism spectrum disorder.” People with autism spectrum disorder typically have difficulty in social settings, have problems communicating, and exhibit “repetitive behaviors” like hand flapping, twirling or rocking. They may not look any different than those without autism spectrum disorder, but interact in much different ways than others.
Autism spectrum disorder can also have a profound effect on one’s ability to think and learn. While some with the disorder are extremely gifted, others suffer from severe mental challenges. It is estimated that boys are nearly five times more likely to suffer from autism than girls.,sup>1 While there is no specific cause, scientists believe that autism spectrum disorder is a genetic condition. One study indicates that if one identical twin has autism, there is up to a 95 percent chance the other will have it as well.
The Connection Between Autism and Digestive Problems
Children with autism also commonly suffer from gut-related issues, such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, and constipation. And scientists have started taking a closer look at how probiotics could help lessen the effects of autism spectrum disorder – particularly behavior and ability to function socially.
Science has established a connection between the gut microbiome and gastrointestinal problems. By combining probiotics with medical treatments, doctors have had success in helping reduce the systems of gut problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and Clostridium difficile infections. Clostridium difficile is a harmful bacterium that causes colitis, diarrhea and other severe intestinal problems. There is significant evidence that autistic children have a substantially different gut microbiome than children who have developed normally. Probiotics may be able to address some of these abnormalities in the gut. 2
What the Research Says
Several studies have determined that children with autism tend to suffer from gut abnormalities. Autistic children have been found to have more of Clostridia bacteria in their gut than those who do not suffer from autism. 3 One study comparing autistic children and those without autism found that more than 50 percent of the autistic children had the harmful Sutterella bacterium in their gut, while none of the non-autistic children had it. 4
Another study specifically analyzed how probiotics may benefit children with autism spectrum disorder. A group of 40 children with autism between the ages of 4 and 13 participated. One group received a probiotic supplement containing the beneficial Lactobacillus plantarum bacterium while the other group received a placebo.
Parents of the autistic children who received the probiotic reported that the children not only showed improved digestive health, but also exhibited substantial behavioral improvements. They reported their children were better able to concentrate and listen, and were also more relaxed and calm. 5
Diet and Autism
Research also indicates that problems associated with autism spectrum disorder could be improved with changes to diet – specifically, reducing foods that can be hard to digest. Many people with autism follow diets that are free of gluten and casein, for example. While there is some evidence that this approach could help reduce gut problems and improve concentration and attention, there hasn’t been a great deal of clinical research conducted.
What About Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are, in a nutshell, the “fuel” that prebiotics need to do their jobs. Prebiotics are commonly found in supplements as well as many foods. Garlic, bananas, onions and other foods contain prebiotic fibers that the body can’t digest. Probiotic bacteria, however, use these fibers as food.
Probiotic bacteria break down prebiotic fibers into short-chain fatty acids such as butyric acid. Short-chain fatty acids are very important, because they help regulate bowel movements and also ensure the body has a sufficient amount of electrolytes. 7 Research indicates that increasing your intake of prebiotics can significantly increase the number of good bacteria in your gut. As a result, this can help reduce symptoms associated with several different digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea and inflammatory bowel disease. 8
One of the key contributing factors to a lot of health problems, whether they occur in the gut or anywhere else, is inflammation. Studies show that prebiotics can help reduce inflammation, possibly because both prebiotics and probiotics affect the way the body is able to metabolize nutrients. 9
Prebiotics have also been shown to impact certain functions of the brain as well, specifically in regard to the production of the “stress hormone” cortisol. 10 The body produces cortisol in reaction to certain stressful situations, but cortisol can also reduce inflammation. In fact, if your body doesn’t have enough of it, that can lead to serious issues such as mood swings, increased fatigue, sudden weight loss and a reduction in muscle mass.
Tips on Buying Probiotics
If you have a child with autism and you’re thinking of trying a probiotic supplement, there are a few things you need to take into consideration.. There are thousands of supplements out there, so take a little time to be as certain as possible that you’re making the right decision.
One of the things you’ll need to look at is the number of CFUs, or colony-forming units, of good bacteria in the products you’re considering. There is some debate as to just how many CFUs you need to ingest in each dose of a probiotic supplement, but most experts recommend you should get at least 2 billion CFUs per dose. The optimum amount, however, seems to be anywhere from 18-30 billion CFUs. You’ll find some probiotic supplements that advertise they contain hundreds of billions of CFUs in each capsule, but they’re extremely expensive and the jury is out whether they work any better.
The key to making the right probiotic supplement purchase will be looking closely at the label. The labeling will not only provide information on the number of CFUs of good gut bacteria per dose, but other important clues regarding the quality of the product as well.
For example, the label should give you an idea of the viability of the bacteria in the product you’ll be buying. If the wording states something to the effect of, “viable at the time of manufacture,” you should go in another direction. The reason is that the bacteria in the probiotic were alive at the time the product was made, but that doesn’t guarantee they will still be alive when you use it. And, of course, if the bacteria aren’t alive, they can’t do you any good. On the other hand, if the label states, “viable until expiration date,” that’s a good indication the bacteria will be alive when you ingest them.
The label should also include storage information. There are a lot of websites out there that will advise that all probiotic supplements have to be refrigerated in order to preserve the bacteria contained within them. But that’s not necessarily the case. Some supplements are manufactured using a freeze-drying process that keeps the bacteria in a sort of suspended animation. When the capsules are ingested, the bacteria are activated. As long as a freeze-dried probiotic product is kept in a cool, dry place – and away from sunlight or any other source of heat – then the bacteria will last until the expiration date.
Types of Bacteria
Another important thing to look for on the labeling is the ingredients of the different supplements you’re thinking of buying. There are about 1,000 bacterial strains in the human body, and certain ones found in supplements work better than others when it comes to helping these naturally occurring microbes do their job. Try to find products, for example, that contain a type of bacterium known as Lactobacillus acidophilus. This is one of the “staple” probiotics that has been shown to help reduce the amount of harmful bacteria in the gut. 11
The Lactobacillus plantarum bacteria mentioned earlier has been shown to help reduce the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. 12 Probiotics should also contain Lactobacillus reuteri bacteria. L. reuteri has also been shown to keep the number of harmful bacteria in the gut in check, but it can also help strengthen the immune system. 13
You should also try to find probiotics containing bacteria in the Bifidobacterium strain. For example, B. bifidum has been shown to help the digestive system work correctly by keeping harmful microbes out of the intestine. 14 It may also play a role in helping protect the body from the flu or the common cold, as well as protecting us from other types of toxins. 15 Bifidobacterium longum has been shown to reduce symptoms associated with antibiotic-associated diarrhea, which is a common side effect of taking antibiotics. 16
The Bottom Line
While research paints a very encouraging picture regarding the potential for probiotics to help people suffering from autism is encouraging, the research is in its early stages. There’s no proof probiotics can prevent autism – and there’s no proof that they can “cure” autism, either.
Also, be sure to speak with your doctor before starting a child with autism on any sort of probiotic regimen. There have been instances where people reported negative reactions with medications after taking probiotic supplements. While probiotics have been shown to be safe for the vast majority of people, talk to a medical professional anyway to be sure.
For more health tips and delicious recipes, keep reading:
1.”What Is Autism? – Autism Science Foundation”. Autism Science Foundation. N.p., 2017. Web. 29 June 2017.
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