How Does Autism Relate to Gut Dysfunction?

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According to Think Autistic, the connection between gut function and autism is pivotal in understanding how gut problems correlate with emotional and behavioral symptoms associated with autism. By learning about gut dysfunction, parents can have a more well rounded approach in dealing with their autistic child’s needs. 

As written in Spectrum News, about 40% of children with developmental conditions, including autism, have gastrointestinal issues, such as constipation, bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and reflux. Such symptoms correlate with more intense aggression, hyperactivity, irritability, anxiety, defiance, and tantrums in children with autism. 

Issues in the gut can worsen symptoms associated with autism, so by learning about gut dysfunction we can have a more nuanced approach to behaviors common among children with autism. 

Inside the gut are microbiotas, which are essential to our ability to absorb food, produce vitamins, strengthen the immune system, and maintain the gut barrier. A study published in the National Library of Medicine titles, “Gut barrier in health and disease: focus on childhood,” discusses the function of the gut barrier as both a physical barrier surface that regulates diffusion across tissues, and a deeper functional barrier, that organizing the immune’s system recognition of foriegn cells and response to pathogens. Disruption of the gut barrier is linked to not only gastrointestinal diseases, but type 1 diabetes, allergies, and autism spectrum disorders. 

Additionally, microbiotas produce neurotransmitters, which are essential to the nervous system and brain function. Neurotransmitters are chemical messages that cross synaptic gaps between neurons, which are the nerve cells that make up the nervous system. Neurotransmitters bind to receptor sites on receiving neurons, thereby influencing communication and responses in the brain. Therefore, the microbiota in the gut influence messages sent and received in the brain, which then influence behavior and emotions. 

This connection has great implications in children’s health as gut bacteria can affect learning, stress, anxiety and overall attitude. Especially, for children with autism, a balanced gut environment is essential to their ability to function and communicate most effectively. 

In approaching a solution to gut dysfunction, it is crucial that parents and health care providers search for the root cause of the child’s gut problems in the first place, whether that be allergies or vitamin deficiencies or sleep deprivation. Since microbiotas are greatly affected by external factors, including diet, sleep, exposure to heavy metals and chemicals, and medication, it is important to examine how these elements contribute to gut dysfunction. 

Moreover, gut dysfunction can be caused by pathogenic infections, inflammation, and leaky gut. According to the Harvard Health Publishing’s article, “Leaky gut: What is it, and what does it mean for you?” A leaky gut is when one’s intestinal lining has openings that allow toxins, partially digested food, and bacteria to enter deeper tissues. Leaky gut, also known as increased intestinal permeability, triggers inflammation and affects the balance of bacteria in the gut. 

Some ways to get a comprehensive and empirical understanding of one’s gastrointestinal issues is to do lab tests. Labs, such as the organic acids test or a stool pathogen screening, identify different fungal, bacterial, and pathogenic elements in the gut. Based on these tests, healthcare practitioners can formulate protocols to treat such underlying issues. 

Another approach towards healing a leaky gut is diet, which includes removing foods that cause sensitivities. By removing such allergens and promoting gut health, inflammatory responses in children with autism may be relieved, improving sleep, focus and attention: all of which benefit the child and their families in all areas of life. 

Overall, we can apply our understanding of how gut function impacts behavior and emotions to children with autism. In doing so, healthcare providers and parents can target specific responses linked to gut dysfunction and inflammation in order to lessen the severity of their child’s symptoms. As a result, our approach toward aiding symptoms associated with autism will be more specific and effective, improving the quality of life for those involved.


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