August 5, 2013
Virender Sodhi, MD(Ayurved),ND
The incidence of autism in the United States and Canada continues to increase at rates never before observed in recorded history. Diagnosis of autism and autism spectrum disorder conditions has increased nearly 50 fold over the last 40 years. While western medicine and research has seemingly stalled in respect to treatment or management of autism, Ayurvedic medicine has proven very effective in treating and assisting those with conditions identified as being on the autism spectrum
Ayurvedic medicine is respected as one of the world’s oldest and original organized study of medicine. Considered alternative and complementary medicine by western medical professionals, Ayurvedic medicine utilizes a combination of specialized diets, herbs, yoga and massage to assist with the management of autism.
Specifically, patients afflicted with autism have demonstrated significant improvements through a series of treatments, including food elimination, sensitivity testing, herbal supplementation, yoga and social normalization. As a cure for autism has yet to be determined, management of the condition using Ayurvedic practices has demonstrated to be effective in supporting autistic patients in becoming functional in managing various symptoms of this condition.
Nutritional Practices to Manage Autism
There are many factors contributing to the development of autism and autism spectrum disorders, one of these factors is thought to be a condition of impaired serotonin metabolism in the brain and central nervous system. Specifically Hoshino, et al. (2008) found that autistic patients contain significantly higher amounts of blood serotonin than normal patients; indicating the presence of a metabolic issue with serotonin.
Autistic patients tend to demonstrate increased digestive issues and food sensitivities. IgG and IgE-mediated testing for food sensitivities and allergies is recommended, although it is not the only we can test hypersensitivities. In severe cases, where IgG or IgE-mediated testing is not a feasible option, specific elimination diets to determine offending foods is recommended.
While many types of foods are thought to contribute to the worsening of symptoms associated with autism, specific types are demonstrating a more significant impact, these include:
- Dairy Products
- Night Shade Vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and peppers.
- Citrus Fruits
- Preservatives, colors, food additives, insecticides, pesticides and heavy metals
The exact reason these foods worsen the symptoms associated with autism is unknown, but various theories indicate that the nutritional compounds of the foods may impede serotonin metabolism or that these foods contribute to gastrointestinal interruptions and discomfort so severe that behavior in autistic patients worsens.
Some, or all, of these digestive issues may be reduced or even avoided by eliminating certain offending, or combination of offending, foods. Additional digestive support for autistic children can be found in a variety of digestive herbs, including:
- Long Pepper
- Black Pepper
- Trikatu, a combination of ginger, long pepper and black pepper used to stimulate the production of digestive enzymes and promote the absorption of essential nutrients.
Autistic children also are more likely to suffer from food sensitivities resulting from improper digestion of foods, often a result of weakened digestive and immune systems. This often causes partially digested food to move into the bloodstream, causing an autoimmune attack and a response similar to an allergic reaction.
In addition to incorporating herbs for digestion, autistic children’s digestive disorders may be further prevented through the use of naturally occurring probiotic flora; most often found in raw organic foods, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi or through a high-quality, all natural multi-strain probiotic supplements.
Probiotics, or healthy bacteria, have demonstrated the ability to promote healthy digestion and strong immune system function. Current research has found that low levels of probiotics in the digestive system, specifically the intestinal tract, is associated with over 170 diseases and health conditions; these include leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and food allergies.
A healthy, normally functioning digestive system contains over 100 trillion bacteria. Best practice for optimal digestive and immune system function recommends maintaining a ratio of 9:1 probiotic to harmful bacteria. This ratio has demonstrated to provide appropriate immune function and reduce incidence of food sensitivity, including digestive disruption and food allergies.
While several different types of bacteria provide beneficial support and are classified as “probiotics”, any multi-strain probiotic source should provide a minimum of three key probiotics, these include:
- Bifidobacterium lactis for relief of leaky gut, constipation inflamed bowels and inflammation resulting from food sensitivities.
- Lactobacillus salivarius, proven through research to dramatically decrease the level of harmful bacteria forming in the mouth, throat and digestive tract reducing gum sensitivity and a host of digestive disorders.
- Saccharomyces boulardii for immune system support, including a significant increase in average blood cell count and a decrease overall inflammation, even during periods of high stress.
Findings by Critchfield (2011) support the use of probiotics to restore the microbial balance in the intestine, to relieve gastrointestinal problems and to reduce immunological abnormalities.
Most food sources of probiotics, including yogurts and fermented vegetables, contain between one and two billion colony forming units, or CFUs, of probiotics per serving. Quality probiotic supplements typically provide between 25 and 50 billion cfus per serving. Health practitioners recommend consuming higher amount of probiotics to ensure proper colonization of healthy bacteria throughout the digestive system.
Immune System Support for Children with Autism
In addition to providing digestive support, probiotics demonstrate key support of immune system function. This is essential to the autistic population as many have demonstrated the likelihood to suffer from a compromised, or generally weakened, immune system.
Managing the immune system needs of the autistic by using Ayurvedic practices requires constant focus on sustaining proper immune function. In addition to supporting immune system function with probiotics, several herbs are recommended, including:
- Tinospora Cordifolia
- Emblica Officinalis
- Piper Longum
Regeneration of Neurons in Patients withAutism
While not yet mainstream practice in the western world, supplementing the diet with herbs and natural and homeopathic treatments is demonstrating to be effective in promoting the regeneration of neurons associated with autism. Several natural treatments are demonstrating promising effects, improving cognitive function and response in the autistic population. Supporting the use of natural supplements for neuron regeneration, Mohondas & Rao (2012) provide evidence that supplementation with fresh leaves extract of Centella asiatica , a creeper, growing in moist places in India and other Asian countries, demonstrate significant improvements in neuron function in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory.
Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are reported to be used by nearly 30% of children with autism. A systematic review of the use of EFAs for autism spectrum disorder in 2009 by Bent, Bertoglio & Hendren found favorable outcomes and measurable improvements in the language and learning skills of autistic children supplementing with EFAs. These findings indicate a correlation between the improvement of neuron function and regeneration and EFA use among children with autism. Some of the food sources of ω-3 and ω-6 fatty acids are fish and shellfish, flaxseed (linseed), hemp oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, leafy vegetables, and walnuts. EFAs are also present in butter and ghee made from yogurt. Other good fats are medium chain triglycerides or MCTs Significant amounts of MCTs are found in coconut oil, grass-fed organic butter and ghee.
In addition to EFAs, several herbs, including Gotu Kola, Bacopa Monnieri, Ginkgo, Mucuna Pruriens and Ashwagandha have demonstrated significant contributions to the regeneration of neurons associated with decreased cognitive function. Specifically, these herbs have demonstrated the ability to:
- Increase blood circulation to the brain
- Protect and repair neurons
- Improve mental strength, concentration and memory
- Enhance concentration, intelligence, attention and overall cognitive ability.
Ayurvedic Treatment for Autism Related Aggression
Resulting from a neurological condition, autism affects normal brain function; impacting areas of the brain responsible for social interaction and aggression. While not all children with autism demonstrate aggression that manifests itself in violence, a significant percentage experience frustration that demonstrates in various ways, including self-harm, mechanical ticks, and emotional outbursts.
Sandhya, Sowjanya, & Veeresh (2012) demonstrated that herbal supplementation with Bacopa monniera demonstrated significant improvements in reducing the symptoms associated with autism. The researchers concluded the herb to be beneficial due to its anti-anxiety, antioxidant and neuroprotective activity.
In addition to herbal supplementation to address aggressive tendencies in autistic children, regular massage with oils of gotu kola, sandalwood, lavender and rose oils provide calming relief. In addition to providing a calming effect, massage stimulates blood flow, stimulating neuron response between the brain and various parts of the body. Research has demonstrated that massage has improved eye contact, less stereotypic behavior, more on task behavior, increased social relatedness and improved sleep.
Proper sleep and sleep habits have also demonstrated to be a significant contributor to reducing the aggressive tendencies observed in autistic children. In addition to practicing normal “sleep routines”, including removal of electronic devices or other items that may delay the sleep cycle, melatonin supplementation has demonstrated significant results. Whitehouse (2013) found that melatonin can be effective as a treatment for sleeping disturbances associated with autism spectrum disorder. Malow (2011) found that the behavior and sleep patterns of children with autism significantly improved after only one week of supplementation with melatonin.
Yoga for Treatment of Autism
In addition to herbal supplements and sound sleep routines, there are several other important practices that are vital to managing autism and its effects on children. Sheetali, or cooling breath, reduces stress, frustration, irritation and anger while promoting inner calmness and tranquility. Sheetali also assists in promoting healthy digestion and inducing sleep, both beneficial for patients with autism. The key to maximizing the benefits of this deep breathing exercise is to ensure cooling breath is inhaled over curled tongue.
So Hum meditation is another way for children with autism to quell aggression by calming the mind and body. So Hum meditation utilizes deep breathing and repeating of the word “hum” to expand consciousness and promote relaxation and self-awareness. While So Hum meditation is most effective when completed in 20 to 30 minute sessions, many patients with autism will need to start with one or two minute sessions, increasing in length as they are able.
Children with autism also experience calm and reduced agitation when exposed to the natural world; specifically by spending time hiking, walking trails or just picnicking in a field of grass and flowers. Exposure to nature provides many benefits to the autistic child, including a calm, peaceful environment; soothing, natural sensory experience; exposure to animals, birds, rocks, mountains, flowers, trees, and clouds; an opportunity to engage in a fun outing with family and friends, providing valuable social interaction; physical activity and exercise.
Children with autism often lack the social skills to seek out and interact with peer; in fact, many of these children have to be taught how to play, interact and communicate with other people. Just like some children struggle in math or in learning how to read, autistic children may struggle with learning how to interact with others. Understanding this point, it is important for autistic children to have experiences and interactions with other children. Exposure to appropriate social interaction may at first be difficult for the autistic child, but practice in controlled environments and proper behavioral modeling are both powerful methods to assist autistic children.
Currently, a cure for autism does not exist, research has provided several useful findings to assist with the management of the symptoms associated with autism. Through strategic practice of herbal supplementation, yoga, meditation and a very specific and controlled diet, patients with autism are able to become functional, contributing members to their families and communities.
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