Ever heard sayings like “I feel it in the gut” or “I’ve got a gut feeling about this” or “Always trust your gut instinct”?
These sayings certainly imply that we acquire critical information from our gut, be it through intuition or unknown neural connections between our gut and our brain, a gut brain connection, with information flowing from our gut to our brain.
Still not convinced? Try this. Close your eyes and imagine someone cutting a lemon right in front of you, its juice squirts out and the pungent smell moves up into your nose, your nose may even tingle slightly. What’s happening in your mouth? Are you salivating? This is an example of how what you are thinking in your brain turns on your digestive system – a gut brain connection – with information flowing the other way this time, from our brain to our gut.
Our digestive system is intricately intertwined with nerves that are imbedded in its walls. These nerves comprise our enteric nervous system and number around 100 million – more than the spinal cord or our peripheral nervous system. The gut also contains around 85% of our immune system, opening up another area of interaction between our thoughts and moods with our gut and immune system.
So How Does This Affect Children Living with Autism?
To understand how the gut brain connection affects kids on the spectrum, we need to take a look at the research. Research is showing that the effect of our gut bacteria on our health and development is monumental. Studies show that changes in gut bacteria affect brain development in mammals, so it is likely that it affects humans as well.
If gut bacteria is strong and healthy, it keeps the ‘bad guys’ under control and intestinal function at its optimum. If the good guys lose control – for instance from repeated courses of antibiotics or exposure to chemicals or to other various factors, then the gut now becomes home to all sorts of pathogenic organisms – bacteria, viruses, fungi, worms and protozoa.
Stool tests confirm the presence of all sorts of pathogenic organisms, but how do these organisms affect the brain? To answer this we need to remember these are living organisms we are talking about and as they go about their daily life, they produce thousands of substances that are toxic to our brains. These toxins are thought to overwhelm a child’s brain, affecting the ability to learn. The brain can’t process the incoming sensory information – it sounds like noise – and the child doesn’t learn.
70% of kids with Autism have gastro-intestinal symptoms – diarrhoea, constipation, swollen distended tummies and pain. Many can’t tell us they are in pain, so look for them bending over armchairs, tables, lounges or anything else that puts pressure on their tummy. Pressure helps relieve the pain.
Head banging is an indication a child is in pain, usually coming from their gut. It’s common for children living with Autism to have impacted faeces which can be cleared using a bowel cleanout procedure. Waking at night screaming is another sign that there is pain in the gut.
Help the gut with some first aid – digestive enzymes, a good quality dairy free probiotic and ensuring that the bowel opens every day. These simple steps combined with dietary changes bring significant relief for many children. In many cases these steps also lead to improvements in eye contact, socialisation and an improved ability to learn.
Gluten and casein are thought to affect brain function through incomplete digestion in the gut. Incomplete digestion results in the production of gluteomorphins and caseomorphins which travel through the altered gut wall and interact with morphine receptors in the brain. This creates a brain fog and what we see in kids is the impaired thinking and learning and a child that is a ‘just not there’ daydreamer. This is another example of how the gut affects the brain in kids living with autism.
It is becoming crystal clear that the gut brain connection plays a major role in human health and disease and that nourishing your gut bacteria is a profound and fundamental requirement for optimal brain function and a healthy life.
Julie Damant – Autism Naturopath