When you think of ways to support a baby’s developing brain, what comes to mind? My guess is that bacteria is likely not something that initially pops into your head.
But more and more research is finding that the bacteria and microorganisms that make up the gut microbiome may actually have a monumental impact on exactly how the brain develops and functions. This is particularly true in the case of a specific set of neurodevelopment disorders known as autism spectrum disorders.
Today we’re going to explore exactly how the gut microbiome – of both autistic children and their mothers – influences the development and extent of autism spectrum disorder. Let’s dive in.
Defining Autism: What Exactly Does It Mean to Be Autistic?
Autism, more officially known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD, is a type of developmental disability. Autism is a complex, lifelong disorder that’s considered a “spectrum” disorder due to the wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms that can be present.
In individuals with autism spectrum disorders, their brains function and interpret information in a way that can result in differences and challenges in:1,2
- Social interactions and understanding social cues
- Emotional regulation
- Communication – atypical speech patterns, non-verbal, difficulty holding a conversation
- Paying attention – difficulty focusing and/or hyper-focusing
- Learning and processing information
Signs of autism spectrum disorder typically begin in early childhood, and usually last throughout a person’s life. Exactly where autism spectrum disorder stems from has been the topic of intense research and heated debate. So let’s take a look at what researchers speculate may cause this disorder.
So, What Is Autism Caused By?
While there’s still no definitive answer as to a single root cause of autism, there a number of factors that have been proposed as potential underlying causes or risk factors to developing autism. These include:3,4
- A mutation in one or more genes
- Exposure to environmental toxins – like heavy metals
- Dysregulation of the immune system
- Pregnancy and birth complications – like premature birth or multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets, etc.)
But there’s one theory about the cause of autism that’s been garnering more and more attention recently. And that is the role of the gut microbiome in the development of autism spectrum disorders. Let’s take a little deeper look.
Role of the Gut Microbiome in Autism Spectrum Disorders
Your gut microbiome is the collective community of microorganisms that reside in your digestive tract. These microbes make up a delicate and intricate ecosystem that’s so integrated with the inner workings of our own bodies, that we quite literally can’t survive without them. And the exact make-up and balance of this fragile ecosystem can have a monumental influence over every facet of our health – including the way our brains function and develop.
There’s a growing body of research showing that an imbalance in the gut microbiome can contribute to the development and severity of autism in several ways. It goes something like this:
- Gene mutations that affect the gut and the brain: Your brain and your gut share many of the same neurons and are intricately intertwined via the gut-brain axis. Certain mutations in your genes can influence how the neurons in your brain and your gut communicate. These alterations can disrupt how your gut functions and cause an imbalance in your gut flora.5
- Altered gut flora: Studies have found that individuals with autism tend to have a specific and identifiable shift in their gut flora. Specifically, people with ASD tend to have lower levels of beneficial gut bacteria, like Bifidobacteria. These bacteria play an important role in managing and minimizing inflammatory processes thanks to their production of important compounds like lactic acid and short-chain fatty acids.6
- Increase in harmful metabolites: This shift in the balance of the gut flora results in an excess of “bad” bacteria that produce harmful metabolites – such as neurotoxins that can exert and exacerbate some of the effects seen in autism.6
- Increased intestinal permeability: People with autism also seem to have increased intestinal permeability – meaning the integrity of the lining of their gut is compromised. These “gaps” in the intestinal walls allow toxins and bacterial products to leak into the bloodstream – ultimately affecting and impairing brain function.7
This combination creates the perfect storm. And while an individual’s gut microbiome can play an undeniable role in brain development and function, there’s a little more to the story here. You see, it’s believed that autistic children’s alteration in brain function begins before birth – and may actually have something to do with their mother’s gut flora.
How a Mother’s Gut Microbiome Can Influence Autism
Studies have found that children with autism aren’t the only ones who have a distinct and distinguishable gut microbiome composition. As it turns out, there’s a direct correlation between maternal microbiome patterns and the prevalence of neurodevelopmental abnormalities. It’s speculated that this is likely due to a couple of reasons which are:8,9
The Development of the Gut-Brain Axis
During pregnancy, a mother’s microbiome can shape her baby’s developing brain in multiple ways. You see, the baby’s gut-brain axis is formed through the bidirectional communication between the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. An imbalance in the composition and quantity of the microbes in the mother’s gut can subsequently impact the baby’s development of the central and intestinal nervous systems.
The Transfer of Gut Flora
There’s also a vertical transmission of gut flora from mother to baby during gestation and childbirth. If the mother’s microbiome is altered, that imbalance will inevitably be passed on to her unborn baby.
So, Is Altering Gut Bacteria an Effective Way to Treat Autism?
The answer is – it’s complicated. Especially considering that research has indicated that the gut microbiome has an impact on autism spectrum disorders both from the standpoint of maternal gut flora and an individual’s gut flora. So let’s break those down a little more.
- Addressing the maternal microbiome: Studies have found that mothers of ASD children have distinct unique bacterial biomarkers. That means that the microbiome can be used as a way to assess risks pre-pregnancy and during the early stages of pregnancy. Understanding the gut microbiome and the correlation to autism spectrum disorders then opens the door to creating a plan to support and modulate the composition of the maternal microbiome to best support the development and growth of the unborn child.10
- Addressing the ASD microbiome: Studies have also found that modulation of the microbiome in individuals with autism spectrum disorders can yield impressive results. A technique known as microbiota transfer therapy is being used to transplant healthy and balanced microbes into the gut of individuals with ASD. This shift in gut flora has been found to immensely reduce the behavioral symptoms seen in ASD and drastically improve their quality of life.11,12
So while we may not necessarily be able to cure or entirely prevent autism spectrum disorders, the gut microbiome may just be the key to better understanding and addressing this condition. But aside from transplanting healthy bacteria into our gut, how can we best support a healthy and balanced microbiome?
Ways to Keep Your Gut Happy, Healthy, and Balanced
The health of your digestive tract is a crucial component of overall health for anyone. But if you’re trying to conceive, are currently pregnant, or you or someone you love has an autism spectrum disorder, gut health becomes even more important. So let’s take a look at some of the most powerful ways to keep your gut happy, healthy, and balanced.
Build Your Diet Around Gut-Friendly Foods:
Your diet is hands-down one of the most influential components of gut health. By focusing on nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods, you give your gut the tools it needs to support a balanced and thriving microbiome. A gut-friendly diet is based on two simple principles:
- Prioritizing real food: Build the majority of your meals around fresh vegetables and fruits, high-quality protein, and healthy fats.
- Keeping inflammatory foods to a minimum: Refined oils and sugars, artificial sweeteners, and processed foods are irritating and inflammatory – so it’s crucial to only include them sparingly.
While diet is the foundation of a healthy gut, the truth is most of us simply can’t get all the necessary nutrients we need from diet alone – which is why I suggest incorporating a few supplements.
Supplements essentially give your body a concentrated dose of nutrients. Some of the best gut-supporting supplements include:
- Probiotics: A daily probiotic is a simple way to regularly re-introduce beneficial bacteria that will crowd out any bad bacteria and help maintain a balanced ecosystem among the bacteria that reside in your gut.
- Collagen: Collagen, which is chock-full of healing amino acids, essentially “seals the gaps” in the lining of your intestines – reinforcing the barrier between your gut and your bloodstream.
- Digestive Enzymes: Digestive enzymes can help your body properly break down and utilize nutrients since this process can be impaired by an imbalanced microbiome.
These supplements are a powerful and effective way to give your gut the support it needs.
Reduce Your Toxic Burden:
An accumulation of toxins can overload your immune system and leave inflammation unchecked. This subsequently damages your gut by promoting dysbiosis and negatively impacting the integrity of the lining of your gut.
Reducing your toxic burden will help keep your microbiome balanced and your intestinal lining intact. You can learn more about the exact steps to reduce your toxic burden right here.
Putting It All Together
While we still have more to learn about the complex relationship between our guts and autism spectrum disorders, research has proven that our guts do a whole lot more than just digesting our dinner. The composition of the gut microbiome clearly plays an intricate role in the way our brains develop and function.
And this information gives us powerful insight as to how we can best support and improve the lives of those with autism. So whether you’re a soon-to-be mom, or you or someone you love has a diagnosis of ASD, one of the most powerful investments you can make is in your health.
That’s why I’m dedicated to bringing you the resources you need to stay in the driver’s seat when it comes to your health.
If you’re ready to take your health to the next level, I encourage you to head over and check out my blog, it’s full of up-to-date and easy to understand information to help you prioritize your health. Or, to take it even deeper, you can enter your name and email address in the form below to get my newsletter delivered straight to your inbox!
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn about the connection between the gut microbiome and autism spectrum disorder? What steps are you taking to support a happy and healthy gut? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- Association Between Gut Microbiota and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (nih.gov)
- Frontiers | Autism Spectrum Disorder Associated With Gut Microbiota at Immune, Metabolomic, and Neuroactive Level | Neuroscience (frontiersin.org)
- Correlation of Gut Microbiome Between ASD Children and Mothers and Potential Biomarkers for Risk Assessment (nih.gov)
- Health of mom’s gut a key contributor to autism risk, study suggests: Could reducing risk of autism involve changing expectant mothers’ diets? — ScienceDaily
- Correlation of Gut Microbiome Between ASD Children and Mothers and Potential Biomarkers for Risk Assessment (nih.gov)
- Autism symptoms reduced nearly 50 percent two years after fecal transplant — ScienceDaily
- ‘Microbiome’ May Be Key to Autism Symptoms – WebMD
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.