Every day, we're surrounded by invaders. Toxins are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Bugs, cat teeth, sharp corners, and other similar objects can deliver even more injury.
When danger appears, inflammation is critical. Our bodies use swelling to surround the issue and start the healing process.
Inflammation during pregnancy could protect a growing baby, but sometimes, it enhances autism risks. And some people with autism experience rampant inflammation as part of the disorder.
You can't (and don't want to) eliminate all forms of inflammation, but reasonable, commonsense steps could help moms to protect their babies. Similar steps could be helpful for people with autism.
Does Inflammation During Pregnancy Raise Autism Risk?
A mother's body is her baby's first home. The substances she eats, drinks, and breathes are shared with her baby during pregnancy. Sometimes, her immune system trains her baby's body in unhelpful ways.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health say inflammation in early pregnancy, sparked by illness, could raise autism risks in babies. They came to this conclusion after reading a study about C-reactive protein (CRP) in pregnant women. This element rises when inflammation throughout the body appears. In this study, its presence resulted in a 43% jump in autism risk.
Your body might respond in this way to:
- Viral infections. A cold or the flu can lead to strong immune system reactions, including some that trigger full-body inflammation.
- Bacterial infections. Strep throat, food poisoning, or urinary tract infections could all lead to either localized or system-wide inflammation.
Some researchers feel the connection goes even deeper. In a second study, researchers concluded that even small amounts of inflammation in a pregnant mom could lead to autism in her child. The stronger her immune system and inflammatory response, the bigger the risk. That holds true even if she doesn't feel ill.
Hypotheses about this connection abound. For example, some researchers suggest that a mom's inflammatory response impacts her baby's brain at a crucial moment. Connections are forming, and neurons are developing. Swelling halts those processes, leaving babies with deficits that extend throughout the lifespan. But more research must be done to determine exactly why swelling is so hard on a growing brain.
Does Autism Cause Inflammation?
Studies show that moms dealing with swelling have a higher risk of giving birth to babies with autism. But what happens after the birth? Researchers suggest that children born with autism have unusual types of inflammation throughout their bodies, and that issue sticks with them throughout their lifespan.
Common areas of inflammation in people with autism include:
- The brain. In a study of people with autism, researchers found high levels of an inflammation marker in a part of the brain associated with behavior. This could suggest that a form of swelling leads to some autism symptoms.
- The gut. Inflammation in the stomach and intestines can lead to irritable bowel disease. Children with autism are 67% more likely than their peers to have an IBD diagnosis.
- The lungs and sinuses. About 19% of children with autism have respiratory allergies, compared to 12% of their peers. Inhaling allergens leads to chronic, uncomfortable inflammation that makes breathing difficult.
- The skin. Eczema causes thick, itchy, swollen skin. About 17% of children with autism have these symptoms compared to 10% of their peers.
Some conditions, including allergies, can lead to systemic inflammation, but it's not unusual for people with autism to have many of these conditions all at once. Their entire bodies are inflamed, even though multiple issues cause that symptom.
What Can Pregnant Women Do?
Some inflammation is expected during pregnancy. For example, your toes and feet may swell if you stand too long in the summertime heat. You can't always prevent these symptoms from appearing, but there's a lot you can do to protect your baby during your pregnancy.
Infection control is critical, researchers say. Catching the flu may seem like an annoyance when you're pregnant, but it could impact your child for the rest of their life. To keep common infections away:
- Wash your hands. Douse your hands with soap and rub them together briskly. Rinse with warm water, and dry with a clean towel.
- Don't touch your face. Your fingers pick up bacteria and deliver it to your body through your eyes, nose, and mouth. Keep your hands in your pockets, or wear a mask to avoid the face-touching temptation.
- Avoid people who are sick. Don't nurse your best friend back to health or visit a family member in the hospital. Keep your distance from people you know are ill.
- Pay attention. Eat right, sleep well, avoid stress, and otherwise be good to your body.
Talk with your doctor about your diet. Research suggests that your gut biome could influence swelling throughout your body, and in some women, taking probiotics is helpful. Other women don't see the same benefit, and these supplements aren't always safe for pregnant women. Talk to your doctor to find out if they might be right for you.
Avoid other inflammatory triggers, such as:
- Cigarette smoke. Don't smoke anything while you're pregnant, and avoid other people who light up. Secondhand smoke can be very damaging to pregnant women.
- Inactivity. Exercise encourages your body to create anti-inflammatory chemicals. Aim to get some exercise on a daily basis.
- Toxins. Pesticides, mercury, aluminum, and some forms of plastic could be harmful to you and your baby.
- Stress. A body under stress produces chemicals that lead to inflammation. Learn stress management techniques and incorporate relaxation methods into your life.
What Can People With Autism Do?
Just as moms should avoid inflammation triggers, so should people with autism. Don't smoke, try to exercise, avoid toxins, and keep your overall stress level low.
You can do even more to keep your body healthy and your inflammatory response down. If you have autism, focus on:
- Allergy shots. Severe allergic reactions lead to system-wide inflammatory responses, including hives. Allergy shots train your body to stop responding to your triggers. That could keep swelling episodes to a minimum.
- Diet alterations. For some people with autism, a customized diet can improve gut health and reduce inflammation. The best meal plans are made for individuals, not groups. Work with your doctor or a dietitian to find a system that works well for you. Don’t attempt any major dietary changes without first consulting your doctor.
- Probiotics. If bloating and gas persist, probiotics may offer a path to healing. Talk to your doctor before you start using them.
Take care of your body, and you could see swelling levels lower and relief appear.
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Inflammation and Autism: An Important Part of the Puzzle. (October 2019). Medical Xpress.
Large Study Ties Gut Issues in Autism to Inflammation. (January 2018). Spectrum.
Autistic Children Prone to Food, Skin, and Respiratory Allergies. (July 2018). Spectrum.
Swelling During Pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association.
Inflammation in Pregnant Moms Linked to Child's Brain Development. (July 2018). National Institute of Mental Health.
Health of Mom's Gut a Key Contributor to Autism Risk, Study Suggests. (July 2018). Science Daily.
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