Asperger’s, Microbiota, and Food

Sometimes people ask me why I am so weirdly persnickety about my eldest daughter’s food intake. Why can’t I just let the poor kid have a piece of birthday cake? It’s one thing to cut back on sugar, but why don’t I lighten up on my Sherman-through-Georgia attitude toward wheat and artificial food colors? Why is the idea of an occasional treat with food coloring such a big hairy deal?

Because my daughter has Asperger’s and torqueing with her gut microbiota makes it worse, that’s why.

A paper published in Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease this last March entitled, “Gut bacteria in children with autism spectrum disorders: challenges and promise of studying how a complex community influences a complex disease” did a good job of spelling it all out:

“Recent studies suggest a role for the microbiota in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), potentially arising from their role in modulating the immune system and gastrointestinal (GI) function or from gut–brain interactions dependent or independent from the immune system. GI problems such as chronic constipation and/or diarrhea are common in children with ASD, and significantly worsen their behavior and their quality of life. Here we first summarize previously published data supporting that GI dysfunction is common in individuals with ASD and the role of the microbiota in ASD. Second, by comparing with other publically available microbiome datasets, we provide some evidence that the shifted microbiota can be a result of westernization and that this shift could also be framing an altered immune system. Third, we explore the possibility that gut–brain interactions could also be a direct result of microbially produced metabolites.”

In sum, your gut affects your brain and the overuse of antibiotics plus the typical Western diet of processed crap and sugar is probably making autism worse. The authors of the paper point out that “in one small study of children with autism, treatment with the minimally absorbed glycopeptide antibiotic vancomycin resulted in short-term improvement in ASD symptoms, supporting a direct role for the antibiotic-sensitive gut bacteria in ASD” and the “fecal microbiota of individuals with ASD in the U.S. shows a greater divergence from individuals in agrarian cultures compared to neurotypical controls.”

So yes, I am picky as hell about what my kids eat. This is why fast food is anathema to me, and why even ‘slow-food’ restaurants are a rare event for my household. My children, and particularly my eldest daughter, are actually imperiled by junk foods. Parents of neurotypical kids, and the kids with no food sensitivities or allergies, can be far less concerned about junk food because while it isn’t good for their kids from a nutrition standpoint it isn’t as bad as it is for my kids per their mental and physical health. 

It doesn’t help that America has not joined the European Union and other nations in banning some of the most harmful foods and food additives. While some scientists rail that this is just “anti-science” because those foods or food additives should not theoretically hurt you, in studies examining the way that garbage affects humans post-consumption  is SHOWING it to be the cause of gastro-intestinal issues and alterations in the microbiota, and several alterations are those which will harm vulnerable people – such as those with ASD. It is for THAT reason – it isn’t safe for everyone – that these ingredients are banned or have to be put on a warning label.

This is also the reason I am leery of GMOs. For one thing, GMOs are not monolithic. I have no problem wearing drought-resistant cotton but I am not feeding my child scorpion-DNA-infused tomatoes until there is ample proof they won’t harm her microbiota. Scientific research has barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding the relationship between the gut and health, let alone getting quantitative and qualitative data as to how GMOs may or may not affect the human gut when consumed. People who say that GMOs are safe are furthermore presuming a scientific consensus world-wide that matches the USA’s consensus, but that simply isn’t true. The reason GMOs are trickling into the EU is because the EU has a much more rigorous evaluation and testing system for GMOs than does the USA, and too many of the GMOS commonly used in the US are showing some issues vis-à-vis transgenic proteins.

While I am at it, don’t hand me any of that bologna that GMOs have better crop yields. They don’t. That’s why a lot of US farmers are heading back to non-GMO seed, especially seed corn. All GMO crops do is lower yields while upping the amount of toxic chemical inputs into the environment and the food supply.

The desire to make sure that the least harmful foods are most readily available to our children is one of the reasons why we are getting a transfer to the UK. Their microbiota is too important to their overall wellbeing to be treated lightly.

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