Herbs and supplements for ASD
What causes autism?
While the exact causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are not fully understood, an emerging perspective is that it is triggered by an interaction of environmental insults (toxins, viruses and so on) in a genetically vulnerable body.So genes may increase the risk for autism, but environmental factors play a significant role.
The role of inflammation
Doige discusses the role of chronic inflammation in autism. He says, "Many autisitc children have immune system abnormalities and overactive immune systems. They have high rates of gastrointestinal infections and inflammation, food sensitivities (often to grains, gluten, dairy and sugar), asthma (which involves inflammation) and inflammation of the skin." In this respect, he says, autism can be thought of not just as a brain disease, but a "whole body disease that affects the brain's health". Doige quotes a 2005 study by a team from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine which showed that austistic brains are often inflammed, especially the cortex and the cerebellum.
Doige points out that another stressor is toxins which can also irritate the brain and cause inflammation. Philip Landrigan and colleagues have published a series of articles on the developing brain and environmental toxins. In an article published in 2002 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives they state that more than 80,000 new synthetic chemical have been developed over the last 50 years. Of these, nearly 18,000 chemical compounds are produced in high volumes and can be dispersed in the air, water, food and homes. Yet only 43% have been tested for potential human toxicity and even fewer (7%) for their possible effects on development. They estimate that 5-20% of children's neurobehavioural disorders are caused by toxic exposures either directly or through interactions with gentic susceptibility. Landrigan (1998) points out that children are not little adults. Due to the immaturity of their systems they are particularly susceptible to harms where an adult may not be. He says that "Their tissues and organs are rapidly growing, developing and differentiating. At various stages these growth processes create windows of great vulnerability to environmental toxins."
The aim of support with herbs and supplements
There is an increasing research base for the use of biomedical herbs and supplements in autism and ADHD. Their use is directed to:
- balance or compensate for these genetic and develomental vulnerabilities,
- and second to arrest the ongoing changes caused by the environmental factors.
- In addition, other problems that might that might be impacting on the overall health of the child can also be countered in a gentle way.
This is consistent with the overall aim to achieve the first stage of neuroplastic brain healing (restoring cellular health in the brain), as defined by Doidge. He says, "These general problems are best corrected before beginning the stages that follow for the patient to get the most benefit." Furthermore, "This general cellular repair stage is especially relevant in treating autism and learning disorders, and in lowering dementia risk, for example." When affected nerve cells in the brain are restored to cellular health, a great deal of the “noise” they emit is quietened, making the person’s nervous system less disrupted and more receptive to other treatments and to the next four stages of neuroplastic brain healing.
Specific issues with ASD identified by the scientific research that can be helped by herbs and supplements include:
- support of the immune system,[i]
- reducing allergies,[ii]
- enhancing detoxification,[iii]
- improving the health of gut bacteria,[iv]
- balancing hormonal function, adjusting diet, assisting sleep and mood,[v]
- and reducing brain inflammation (which is often behind a “noisy” brain).
Russel Blaylock, neurosurgeon and researcher, published a report in 2012 about the use of natural plant products and extracts to reduce
immunoexcitotoxicity-associated neurodegeneration and promote repair within the central nervous system. He states:
Our understanding of the pathophysiological and biochemical basis of a number of
neurological disorders has increased enormously over the last three decades. Parallel with
this growth of knowledge has been a clearer understanding of the mechanism by which a
number of naturally occurring plant extracts, as well as whole plants, can affect these
mechanisms so as to offer protection against injury and promote healing of neurological
tissues. Curcumin, quercetin, green tea catechins, balcalein, and luteolin have been
extensively studied, and they demonstrate important effects on cell signaling that go far
beyond their antioxidant effects. Of particular interest is the effect of these compounds on
immunoexcitotoxicity, which, the authors suggest, is a common mechanism in a number of
neurological disorders. By suppressing or affecting microglial activation states as well as the
excitotoxic cascade and inflammatory mediators, these compounds dramatically affect the
pathophysiology of central nervous system disorders and promote the release and generation
of neurotrophic factors essential for central nervous system healing.
Another person who pioneered use of herbs and supplements for neurodevelopmental disorders is Dr. Michael R. Lyon, a practising physician and medical researcher with expertise in both conventional and natural medicine. One of the foremost authorities in the science behind complementary medicine, Dr. Lyon is the Medical and Research Director of the Canadian Centre for Functional Medicine. Dr. Lyon has conducted several clinical trials and research projects in the pursuit of better treatments for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
One example of the beneficial use of supplements can be seen in recent clinical trials of broccoli sprouts in ASD. Broccoli sprouts are known to stimulate the clearance of toxins from the body, and a clinical trial conducted by doctors at the eminent Johns Hopkins University in the USA showed a substantial and significant improvement in young men with ASD.[vi] Parents made comments like:
‘‘R is now happier, has more control over his body, and overall is a positive child with a great attitude. He is more social and goes to concerts, movies, restaurants, vacations and family outings (all of which were not possible before the study).’’[vii]
In a clinical trial of children with ASD and language impairment, treatment with high-dose folinic acid (a form of vitamin B9) for 12 weeks resulted in improvement in measures of verbal communication, as compared with the placebo.[viii] In another clinical trial, results illustrated folic acid intervention (another form of vitamin B9) improved autism symptoms towards sociability, receptive language and communication.[ix]
A review of the evidence from clinical trials found vitamin D supplementation improved the typical symptoms of ASD, as indicated by reduced Social Responsiveness Scale and Child Autism Rating Scale scores, and concluded vitamin D was beneficial for children with ASD.[x]
Another review of natural treatments for ASD found 27 double-blind, randomised clinical trials, including 1028 patients with ASD: 542 in the intervention arms and 486 in the placebo arms. Supplementation (including omega-3 fish oil, vitamins and/or other supplementation) was more effective than placebo at improving several symptoms, functions and clinical domains.[xi]
[i] Marchezan J, Winkler Dos Santos EGA, Deckmann I, Riesgo RDS. Immunological Dysfunction in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Potential Target for Therapy. Neuroimmunomodulation. 2018; 25(5-6): 300-319. doi:10.1159/000492225
[ii] Billeci L, Tonacci A, Tartarisco G, Ruta L, Pioggia G, Gangemi S. Association Between Atopic Dermatitis and Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Systematic Review. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2015; 16(5): 371-388. doi:10.1007/s40257-015-0145-5
[iii] Wang M, Hossain F, Sulaiman R, Ren X. Exposure to Inorganic Arsenic and Lead and Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Chem Res Toxicol. 2019; 32(10): 1904-1919. doi:10.1021/acs.chemrestox.9b00134
[iv] Iglesias-Vázquez L, Van Ginkel Riba G, Arija V, Canals J. Composition of Gut Microbiota in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2020; 12(3): 792. Published 2020 Mar 17. doi:10.3390/nu12030792
[v] Posar A, Visconti P. Sleep Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pediatr Ann. 2020; 49(6): e278-e282. doi:10.3928/19382359-20200511-01
[vi] Singh K, Connors SL, Macklin EA, et al. Sulforaphane treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014; 111(43): 15550-15555. doi:10.1073/pnas.1416940111
[vii] Lynch R, Diggins EL, Connors SL, et al. Sulforaphane from Broccoli Reduces Symptoms of Autism: A Follow-up Case Series from a Randomized Double-blind Study. Glob Adv Health Med. 2017; 6: 2164957X17735826. Published 2017 Oct 26. doi:10.1177/2164957X17735826
[viii] Frye RE, Slattery J, Delhey L, et al. Folinic acid improves verbal communication in children with autism and language impairment: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Mol Psychiatry. 2018; 23(2): 247-256. doi:10.1038/mp.2016.168
[ix] Sun C, Zou M, Zhao D, Xia W, Wu L. Efficacy of Folic Acid Supplementation in Autistic Children Participating in Structured Teaching: An Open-Label Trial. Nutrients. 2016; 8(6): 337. Published 2016 Jun 7. doi:10.3390/nu8060337
[x] Song L, Luo X, Jiang Q, et al. Vitamin D Supplementation is Beneficial for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Meta-analysis. Clin Psychopharmacol Neurosci. 2020; 18(2): 203-213. doi:10.9758/cpn.2020.18.2.20
[xi] Fraguas D, Díaz-Caneja CM, Pina-Camacho L, et al. Dietary Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2019; 144(5): e20183218. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-3218