Children with autism often benefit from dietary interventions. Adding probiotics to their diet could potentially result in some reduction in autism symptoms, though the research is nascent.
There is a close connection between autism and gut health, according to recent research. People on the autism spectrum have less diverse gut flora, or microbiome, compared to their neurotypical peers. Medical studies are just now uncovering a possible link between gut health, symptoms of autism, and brain health.
While there is evidence that gut health impacts many body systems, there are other reasons to add probiotics to your child’s diet. Probiotic-rich foods or probiotic supplements can help your child feel more comfortable and ease some autism symptoms like feeding problems.
Probiotics should only be used after consulting with your child’s pediatrician. They can advise you on the safest supplements and break down the dos and don’ts of giving your autistic child probiotics.
Dietary adjustments are not a substitute for behavior therapy, like applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, which is the most effective current treatment for autism.
What Are Probiotics?
The term probiotics stems from antibiotics. These supplements contain live microorganisms that are good for you, particularly your gut health. Probiotics are also found in fermented food like sauerkraut and yogurt, and are sometimes applied to beauty products for your skin.
There are trillions of types of bacteria that live in your body, supporting your digestion, immune system, skin, hair, heart, and even your brain.
A survey conducted by the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) in 2012 reported that about 1.6% of adults in the United States, or around 4 million people, took probiotics at least once in the past month. About 300,000 children in the U.S. between the ages of 4 and 17 also take these supplements.
This means that probiotics are the third most commonly used dietary supplement, with vitamins and mineral supplements ranking first and second.
How Do Probiotics Support Gut Health?
Probiotics should help to replenish your gut bacteria, or microbiome, so you are healthier overall.
While they are generally safe when taken as directed, probiotics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so some of the claims manufacturers make are not supported by scientific evidence.
If your child has autism, you may consider adding probiotics to their daily routine to support their gut health. People with autism often have gastrointestinal issues, and the link is not fully understood, but digestive health seems to impact some behaviors associated with autism.
Intestinal Issues & Food Problems
People who are on the autism spectrum often struggle with digestive issues. These may include:
- Diarrhea and constipation.
- Bowel inflammation.
- Abdominal pain and bloating.
- Gastroesophageal reflux.
Children with autism often develop problems with food around their first birthday. These include strong preferences, aversions, drastic changes in behavior related to food, and rituals around eating. Children on the autism spectrum may struggle to move away from baby food or add new foods to their diet. They may stop chewing on certain foods, and instead suck or “pocket” the food in their cheeks.
Since these problematic behaviors begin before many children are officially diagnosed on the autism spectrum, some medical researchers have suggested that feeding problems can be added to the diagnostic criteria.
Autism & Gut Health Are Closely Linked
Some recent medical studies have found some differences between the gut microbiomes of people with autism and neurotypical individuals. People with autism, including children, tend to have less diverse gut flora. There doesn’t appear to be a connection between the diversity of the gut biome and the severity of autism.
People with autism may benefit from adding probiotic supplements to their diet. For children who struggle with food aversions, taking these supplements in place of eating fermented foods may work better to ensure they have a more diverse microbiome.
A 2016 medical study surveyed gastrointestinal issues in children with autism and examined whether probiotics could help. The results did not show behavioral improvements after probiotic treatment, but the researchers concluded that a larger study could give more conclusive evidence in favor of this option.
Adding Probiotics to Your Child’s Diet
If you want to support your child’s digestive health, and potentially benefit from some degree of behavioral improvement, it is important to know how to safely add probiotics to their diet.
First, try adding food with probiotics, like:
- Yogurt with live cultures.
- Kefir, a yogurt-based drink.
- Sauerkraut or kimchi.
- Lacto-fermented pickles.
Adding healthy food with a variety of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and even probiotics is the best approach since your child will then learn how to eat and enjoy a balanced diet. You can also add probiotics supplements.
Again, remember that many probiotic supplements are not approved or monitored by the FDA, so the manufacturers may make claims that are not true. These include claims about the health benefits of probiotics, how much of the probiotic supplement is safe to take, and how many actual live cultures are present in the supplement. Some dietary supplements do not contain the ingredients they claim to, so it is important to research the best probiotics first, relying on brand names that have a long history of good reviews.
Types of Probiotics
Once you start looking for probiotics, there are two types you should consider.
- Lactobacillus reuteri: One study found that this probiotic improved social behaviors in mice who had autism symptoms, by increasing oxytocin, which helps mammals bond socially to each other.
- Bacteroides fragilis: Some people with autism have “leaky gut,” a condition in which some digestive enzymes escape the stomach or small intestines, enter the bloodstream, and trigger an immune response that causes inflammation similar to an autoimmune condition. B. fragilis appears to ease this problem in mice. Once the mice were more comfortable, they vocalized, socialized, and appeared less obsessive and anxious.
Give your child a low dose of these supplements at first, to see if they help. Probiotics can cause some side effects, including:
- Bloating and stomach discomfort.
- Mild gas.
- Increased thirst.
- An “overstimulated” immune system.
If your child experiences these symptoms, stop using probiotics and consult your child’s doctor.
Ask Your Child’s Doctor
You should always talk to your child’s pediatrician before implementing major dietary changes. They can recommend a good supplement to support your child’s gut health. You can even get a recommendation for a nutritional therapist to help you understand your child’s overall dietary needs.
The best treatment for autism symptoms is behavior therapy, so any dietary changes, probiotic supplements, or other treatments should be used alongside more traditional therapy for autism.
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