Does altered gut health contribute to autism?

Short answer: A recent Australian study has concluded that a dysfunctional gut microbiome may exacerbate some detrimental autistic behaviours but is more likely to be a consequence of, rather than the cause of autism

Long answer:

There has been much written about the relationship between our gut and brain. Some research has suggested that the bacteria within our gut – the gut microbiome – affects the brain and may contribute to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Recently ABC News reported on a study which challenges this assumption. The authors of the study – Mater Research and the University of Queensland Australia – concluded:

‘Our findings are contrary to suggested causal links between autism and the gut microbiome – We recommend that research claiming a causal effect of the microbiome on autism or autistic traits be treated with caution. That is, changes to the microbiome appear to be a consequence of being autistic, rather than a cause.’

The study found evidence that people with autism often have restricted diets with less diversity than is desirable due to their tendencies to experience ‘restricted and repetitive interests and sensory sensitivity’. They suggest that this drives microbiome changes. From these findings they conclude that simply targeting the microbiome is unlikely to have an effect on autistic traits and that the spotlight should be on diet – not ‘experimental gut remedies’.

Interestingly, the ABC News article highlights the example of a child with ASD (not part of the study) who received treatment with probiotics to improve his gut microbiome and his mother reported that his negative behaviours improved, although his ASD remained.

Another study, The Promising Role of Probiotics in Managing the Altered Gut in Autism Spectrum Disorders ( published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, cited numerous studies which support the role for probiotics in the treatment of behaviour-related symptoms of gut dysbiosis. This study reinforces the suggestion that treatment is not expected to cure ASD but has a role in relieving dysfunctional symptoms by ‘correcting the dysbiosis, reducing inflammation and reinforcing depleted immunity.’

Along similar lines, a very recent American study concluded that treating the gut microbiome can be useful in improving behavioural deficits associated with ASD.

Clearly, the jury is still out and most studies agree that more research needs to be conducted on this very complex condition and its management – Australia now has a dedicated Microbiome Research Centre. However, most studies acknowledge that diet – and a balanced microbiome – play a vital part in the management of ASD and suggest that professional dietary advice is critical to positive outcomes.

Here at WLC Medical, we are passionate about assisting all our patients to be their happiest and healthiest selves, with quality dietary advice and support critical to achieving that goal. As a Registered NDIS Provider we are proud to be involved in the lives of our NDIS participants who are experiencing challenging conditions, including ASD.

Our experienced (and delightful) Dietitian Andrea Kunneke works with adults and children and offers in-practice consults as well as home visits for our NDIS patients. She is also able to refer people for gut health assessments through Microba that can create a map of your gut bacteria (microbiome) and determine your balance of good and bad bacteria.

We are also pleased to recommend Nurse Practitioner Julie McLean from Perth Paediatric and Family Clinic who is keenly interested in integrative health and all general paediatric conditions, including nutritional medicine incorporating obesity, fussy eating and weight management.