The Brain/Gut Connection

COPENHAGEN(2)When I had first started to notice that J’s speech progression was declining, I had also noticed that his pooped diapers seemed to be abnormal as well…at least compared to my other children.  His bowel movements were frequently runny/watery…with pieces of food that just never struck me as being digested properly.  Poop shrapnel we dubbed it.  It wasn’t just a once in awhile type of thing, it was every time he went.  And he went a lot.  Easily upwards of ten times a day.  I thought it was weird and a bit concerning, but my husband had always had something that seemed akin to irritable bowel syndrome.  He was able to process food within 15 minutes of eating it.  He claimed it was probably due to the fact that since he’d been a kid he had always had a fast metabolism and maybe J just had the same thing.  I can’t say that I ever really compared bowel movements with other people.  I figured if it was familiar to him then maybe it was just a genetic thing…so I let it go.

During the same time period (about 2 and a half years old), Jadon’s eating habits began to drastically change as well.  He was completely addicted to simple carbs/processed foods…pizza, hotdogs, cereal, crackers, chips, “Gerber Crunchies”, breads, cookies, and mac/cheese.  I look back on pictures of him eating that stuff or brightly dyed, frosted birthday cakes and I cringe.  I was hurting my son and I had absolutely no idea.  All that potential healing time lost.  I did try very hard to get him to eat fruits/veggies like he had as a baby, but all he did was gag and spit it out.  It would turn into a battle of tears and choking…so I gave up and instead tried to feed him healthier versions of what he liked to eat, whole grain pizza crusts, whole grain crackers, whole grain pastas…ya know, the “healthy” complex carbs…or so I had been brainwashed to think.

By the time J turned 4 the pooping issues weren’t stopping and I was really feeling like there had to be a connection between them and the other behaviors that he had developed.  We just moved to a new area of the state and I hadn’t found a doctor yet that was interested in taking on new patients that were “anti-vaxers”.  So I took matters into my own hands (as usual) and began researching.  At that point in time, I still was not sure that my son had autism (I went back and forth with that idea for three years, see Our Story).  However, when I did research, I researched like he was.  What I had found were a few emerging studies and evidence linking various gut disorders to neurological conditions like autism (as well as other auto-immune disorders).  I had also read a lot of articles that claimed this to be quack science.  However, many of the bowel patterns my son was exhibiting matched up with a disorder called Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS).  I decided to try and eliminate certain foods that I knew contained gluten from his diet and I noticed that the frequency and consistency of his pooping began to change.  So a very short version of a long story; my suspicions of my son having leaky gut proved to be true after I had tests run on him when he was five years old.

One of the top causes of LGS is gluten intolerance.  There are many other inflammatory foods and medications that greatly contribute to the creation of a leaky gut as well; beta-casein (A1) proteins in dairy products, preservatives/MSG/dyes, medications (Motrin, Advil, steroids, anti-depressants, antibiotics, acid-reducing drugs etc), processed/refined sugars, genetically modified, irradiated, bleached foods, excessive alcohol consumption (just to name a few).  There are also infectious causes, such as candida (yeast) overgrowth (seen commonly in autism), intestinal parasites, and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).  Environmental toxins contribute through mercury, pesticides (in the air and on food), and BPA from plastics, harmful chemicals in pretty much all commercial cleaners, solvents, detergents etc.  Toxins from beauty care items like lotions, perfumes, makeup…the list is just endless.  Stress and age may also contribute to a leaky gut.  Allowing a disease like this to continue without being diagnosed can lead to and aggravate many problems (and auto-immune disorders) in the body, like autism.

So I’ve told you what can cause and contribute to leaky gut…but what exactly IS leaky gut?  Leaky gut is basically a permeated intestinal wall.  The intestinal lining has broken down to a point of allowing toxins and bacteria to escape into the lymphatic system and bloodstream.  An easier way to imagine this is a healthy intestinal wall being more like PVC pipe and an unhealthy one being like a paper towel tube.  When the intestinal wall becomes broken down, it is no longer doing it’s job of allowing the nutritional parts of it’s contents to be the only parts that pass through to the body.  It now is allowing food proteins and other infectious toxins to “leak” into the body as well.  These proteins and toxins (that should have been expelled) begin to stimulate inflammation throughout the body, causing an overactive immune system (in addition to other problems).  Your immune system is designed to recognize and fight off threatening biological invaders.  You can imagine then, when you have a steady stream of toxins leaking into the body, the immune system goes into hyper-drive.  So what’s wrong with that?  It’s doing it’s job, right?  Yes and no…when the invaders don’t stop, the immune system doesn’t switch off and you get an immune system gone haywire.  It begins to have trouble differentiating between the enemy and it’s own body cells, which means it’s attacking all the good and all the bad…all the time.   Many autistic patients will have dramatically elevated white T-cell counts as a result.  This “malfunction” begins a systemic breakdown of the internal pathways, creating a chain reaction of inflammation in the body…the symptoms of which can range from fatigue, joint pain, headaches, rosacea, eczema, depression, anxiety, bloating, food sensitivities/allergies, thyroid conditions, weight gain, syndrome X and other digestive problems.  Additionally, the body is unable to absorb vital nutrients and minerals.                                                       1                 2

One of the more notable problems is the effect it has on the neurological pathways…enter autism.  When leaky gut and intestinal inflammation are present, the toxic particles leaking from the intestines into the bloodstream will make their way into the region of the body that triggers inflammation in the brain.  This can result in brain degeneration (the damaging and killing of neurons).  Additionally it causes many other stereotypical traits of autism such as, repetitive behaviors, loss of communication/speech, fatigue, aloofness, rancid-smelling and loose bowel movements, yeast overgrowth (which can contribute to night sweating that has a sweet smell to it, and laughter at random times for seemingly no reason), hyperactivity, brain fog and lack of focus, stimming, rashes, etc.

More than 90% of people “on the spectrum” have been found to have some form of gastrointestinal problems, many cases being Leaky Gut Syndrome, specifically.  Why?  Well…the (mainstream medicine) jury is still out on that one.  It’s only the fringe, naturopath/homeopath or functional medicine practitioners that really give any credence to this school of thought.  Though, I will say I have noticed more articles popping up, debuting “mainstream” studies with the revelation that there just may be some validity to the brain/gut connection after all (yet they fail to really explain the why part).  At least they are finally catching up, if even a little bit…sigh.  I digress.  In all honesty, (for me) the question brings to mind the old “chicken or egg” idiom.  If toxicity causes the intestinal wall to breakdown, which in turn can cause all of these problems in the body (auto-immune disorders especially), and an overwhelming majority of those affected with autism have these problems…then it would seem that autism itself could almost be a symptom rather than the cause, doesn’t it?  But then, you would have to ask the question; why are some people more sensitive to this condition than others?  My answer for that would be genetic predispositions and their triggers…which will be an article coming soon, introducing their role and affect on autism.

Ok…so what can you do about this?  The first bit of advice I would give someone is, get tested.  Find a functional medicine practitioner if possible, you will have better luck with these doctors as they believe in fixing the root of the problem, rather than the symptom.  Ask them to run gluten and casein antibody tests, and the tests to find markers that identify a leaky gut problem.  For those that may not be able to do that, but suspect that they or someone they know may be a sufferer of LGS, you can try “The Elimination Method”.  This method can help narrow down potential food/chemical allergies.  The concept is to take away the suspected offending substances for a week or two, track the results in a journal (how you felt, consistency of bowel movements etc), add the substances back in and again track the results.  By keeping a journal you are able to see if there are consistent reactions to various foods and chemicals.  It’s a more tedious process, but it does work.  It was a method I initially used on my son prior to having him formally tested.  I found that not only did my son not react well to gluten, casein and processed foods, but he was also addicted to them, thanks to the opioid effects of preservatives/dyes and “excito-toxins” in MSG (and it’s relatives).

We have seen dramatic improvements in Jadon’s overall health since eliminating as many of the substances that contribute to/aggravate leaky gut as we are able.  Most notably, gluten and casein.  It is not an overnight fix.  We have been at this diet for over a year now and we’ve come a long way, but still have a distance to go.  It takes a while for the body to heal.  It takes 2 months for the body to rid itself of casein proteins and 9 months for gluten proteins.  One little mistake and there are real biological setbacks.  I’ve been there, it is beyond disheartening.  Gluten and casein can hide in so many foods we would never even consider to be candidates.  It’s a rough road to heal the gut, especially when entering the realm of GF/CF diets…but it can be done.  You have to make your mind up to do it, and dig in.  I cried in frustration because of how hard it was to change everything we were eating, to remember all the rules.  I cried in anger because I made mistakes that resulted in lost healing time.  But let me say that those tears were NOTHING compared to the tears of happiness that poured down my cheeks the first time my son said “I love you”.  When you get overwhelmed and frustrated just remember, if it means we can lessen or eradicate symptoms…then it truly is time, money, and energy well spent. If ever you have questions, concerns, need some advice, or would like to offer some…I am a comment or an email away.  Wishing you and yours the best of health.


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