Over the years of training in nutritional therapy and subsequently opening a practice in Hereford I have witnessed more and more parents turning to nutritional therapies as a tool to support their children with autism. The field of nutrition is evolving rapidly and none more so than in the field of functional testing.
Although we have not identified the cause of autism there is a confluence of factors such as immune dysfunction, gastrointestinal disturbance, dietary habits and other factors that combine to influence the expression of autism.
Using functional testing can be hugely supportive in determining an individualized care plan reflective of the individual and the biological pathways that need supporting rather than a one size fits all approach that is so often used. The aim is to develop a customized nutritional support plan.
The following testing assessments can be very helpful when developing a customized support program for a child or adult.
A study carried out by Dr. William J. Walsh in 2000 involving 503 patients all diagnosed with autism, ADHD and/or asperger’s syndrome; Over 99% of the study cohort tested for abnormal trace metals in their blood and urine1. The combination of heavy metal exposure and mineral deficiencies can significantly interfere with neurological development in children. Getting a lab analysis of heavy metal burden is always prudent when investigating autism.
Amino acids are the components that we use in our body for building and repair and are broken down from proteins we ingest. They are essential for neurological health as they are the building blocks for key neurotransmitters that regulate mood and behaviour. In one study it was found that a large test group with autism showed raised levels of excitatory neurotransmitters, decreased levels of essential amino acids and decreased precursor neurotransmitters that make up a distinct blood profile of autistic children2. Doing an amino acid profile could help decide which amino acids to provide to best support mood and brain chemistry.
GI complaints are very common with children with autism. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, general discomfort, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and persistent diarrhoea3. The most common causes of these symptoms lie in the microbial balance in the gut. Doing a comprehensive stool analysis is the principal and most essential test when investigating factors that perpetuate gastrointestinal symptoms. A complete digestive stool analysis helps to determine what bacteria and yeasts need to be removed and which beneficial bacteria would have the greatest beneficial effect.
Intestinal permeability is a situation that arises when the intestinal wall along the intestinal tract becomes porous. This allows material to enter the blood stream that should not be there and can be a catalyst for many health problems. In a single study it was found that 36.7% of autism patients tested positive for ‘leaky gut’ compared with 4.8% in normal subjects4. Identifying intestinal permeability means you can supply nutrients like collagen and glutamine to help support the intestinal lining.
ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS
Essential fatty acids especially DHA are critical for optimal function of the brain. Autistic children have a tendency to exhibit decreased levels of essential fatty acids in blood cells5. By testing for essential fatty acid status you can see which of the essential fatty acids that the child is deficient in and rebalance levels using diet and supplementation. Fish oils have varying levels of DHA and EPA in varying degrees that can be utilized depending on their levels in the blood test. Opti-3 is the only vegetarian source of essential fatty acids that has levels sufficient to be clinically useful.
Gluten and Dairy are two very well established food intolerances that can seriously aggravate a child with autism. If you are reading this and your child still consumes one of these then I encourage you to eliminate these from the diet. There are allergy tests that can test for up to 120 foods and this can be helpful to build a map of foods that are safe to eat and which one might cause an immune response.
The final test that is often useful when working with someone on the spectrum is a melatonin profile. Children on the spectrum can have significant sleeping issues as they can be more prone to rhythmic dysfunctions. This can be related to the amino acid levels mentioned above. Melatonin levels are essential for a when trying to rebalance the circadian rhythm and subsequently support sleeping patterns.
The above tests are a comprehensive but not complete list of tests that you might like to approach your healthcare practitioner with. Even where you feel that testing is not something that you feel you would like to utilize then the above list gives you key areas that you can work on and research further when trying to improve the wellbeing of someone with autism.