Working with developmentally disabled children has given me a renewed appreciation for the multiple roles of the gut. In addition to its obvious role in digestion, its functions as a vital barrier that protects our bodies from the harmful effects of what we ingest.
You may know that our intestines form an integral part of our immune systems, but did you also know that the gut, just like the brain, has receptors for many neurotransmitters? These are the chemicals that transmit nerve signals between synapses in the nervous system. Further, our guts support a thriving environment (or flora) of bacteria and yeast. This flora consists of about a quadrillion individual germs, which also live on the skin, eyes, digestive tract, and vagina.
The guts of breast-fed infants are initially colonized with beneficial bacteria, including lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. In exchange for a place to live, our gut flora perform many important tasks such as fighting off harmful microbes, manufacturing certain vitamins, and converting food into fuel for the body and brain.
When the delicate balance of the ecosystem in our intestines is disrupted, however, the good bacteria may be depleted. Even a single course of antibiotics can wreak havoc on normal intestinal flora. (Other factors include surgery, gastroenteritis, and other medications.) When harmful flora flourishes, it can produce substances that are biochemically similar to normal neurotransmitters. This is called “molecular mimicry.” As these messages are processed, we may suffer from clouded thinking, feel drunk or achy, or develop symptoms that are hard to diagnose. Furthermore, the release of these toxins (often considered microbial “waste products”) can interfere with the body’s detoxification mechanisms. Our bodies now find it more difficult than ever to handle pollutants, at a time when toxins are being added to our environment at warp speed.
Judicious use of probiotics and intermittent use of Saccharomyces boulardii, a good yeast that fights bad yeast, can promote the normal balance of the many bacterial and yeast inhabitants of our guts. Probiotic supplements or cultured foods with active cultures can help re-establish beneficial flora in the intestines.
Children on the autism spectrum seem to be at particular risk for pathogenic bacteria, especially Clostridium. Stool analyses can be used to identify and quantify bacteria so that pathogenic species can be identified and treated. For example, Clostridia is treated with oral Vancomycin, sometimes in combination with Flagyl or oral gentamicin. Certain children with autism respond positively to treatment with antifungal agents like Diflucan, Sporanox, Lamisil, or Ketoconazole. The reasons for this are still unclear, since studies to date do not demonstrate increased colonies of yeast in children with autism, compared to controls. Some symptoms to look out for are red rings around the anus, chronic constipation or diarrhea, or a history of multiple courses of antibiotics.
People know that they need to exercise to build muscles, take calcium to maintain their bones, and eat a “heart-healthy” diet to prolong their lifespan. How Many of those same people understand how crucial it is to take care of their guts, and the flora that live there symbiotically? Far from being a lowly corridor that simply turns food into waste, our gut performs many vital functions, and needs to be kept healthy in order for us to stay healthy.
By Elizabeth Mumper, MD. Reprinted from The ANDI (Autism Network for Dietary Intervention) News.
Dr. Elizabeth Mumper is a general pediatrician treating a large number of children with autism and attention problems. She is the former Medical Director of the Autism Research Institute (ARI). CEO of Advocates for Children and the founder of the RIMLAND Center in Lynchburg, Virginia.