Is Autism an Autoimmune Disorder?

Is Autism an Autoimmune Disorder? post image

Immune dysregulation and autism is the topic of an interesting opinion article published in the New York Times this week. A 20 year study from Denmark indicates that if the mother experiences a bacterial or viral infection during pregnancy, the risk for autism may double or triple. It’s not the bug, it’s the maternal immune response to the invader and the ensuing inflammation that is the culprit.

Immune dsyregulation may affect the developing brain

If the mother has some dysregulation of her immune system, whether it be from viruses during pregnancy or from her own immune balance problems, this can affect the developing child’s brain.

It appears that it is the mother’s response to a trigger is what is important.  Research by Paul Patterson, an expert in neuroimmunity at Caltech, shows that causing inflammation in pregnant mice results in behavioral problems in the offspring. Paul Patterson has a blog and a book that may be of interest.

Another large study from Denmark has shown associations between autoimmune diseases in the parents (especially the mother) and the elevated risk of autism in the child.

Asthma and autoimmunity are linked to autism

Another Danish study, which included nearly 700,000 births over a decade, found that if a mother had rheumatoid arthritis, this elevated a child’s risk of autism by 80 percent. They found that if the mother had celiac disease, (an inflammatory disease triggered by proteins in wheat and other grains), the risk for autism increased  350 percent.

Wow. That is a huge risk, especially in view of the fact that many people with celiac go undiagnosed for years. I wonder if gluten intolerance carries a similar risk and/or if a grain-free diet in the mother alleviates some of the risk…

Genetics also has something to do with autism. However, it is the gene variants that are associated with autoimmune disease that appear to increase the risk of autism, especially if it comes from the mother’s side.

Inflammation is the common denominator

The common denominator here is the problem of inflammation. This begs the million dollar question of why we are experiencing so many inflammatory conditions.

Modern cultures who still live close to the earth — actually have little if any autoimmune diseases and they have no autism.  The hygiene hypothesis is becoming more and more accepted and medicine is embracing  the inherent therapeutic possibilities.

Inflammation is linked with autism

Inflammation in autistic children was first identified by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. He observed that autistic children had inflammation in their bowels. He did endoscopy exams on all the autistic children he saw and he noticed that they all had a new kind of inflammatory bowel disease that he called autistic enterocolitis.

He has been persecuted for this work, but it appears that others have found similar problems in the guts of autistic children. Here again, inflammation is at work.

There is current research that suggests that inflammation in the amniotic fluid may influence the development of the child’s brain. Brain cells called astroglia and microglia — get enlarged from chronic immune activation. Pro-inflammatory chemicals and cytokines are present. Genes involved in inflammation are switched on. Amniotic fluid collected from Danish newborns who later developed autism looked mildly inflamed according to a study presented this year.

We evolved with our parasites

All the associations and relationships of autism with various other diseases and conditions as noted above, revolve around inflammation. Inflammation is the basis for many disease conditions.

Civilization has created a clean and sterile world for us, but we have lost our old friends (parasites, worms and other microbes that should be part of our microbiome) and we need them back. Amazingly, scientists at Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine are investigating the use of pig whipworm (Trichuris suis) in autistic adults.

T suis has been used successfully to treat inflammatory bowel disease and is currently being studied in other universities (NYU is one) for that condition.

Parasites and autoimmunity

We know that our uncivilized ancestors coexisted with parasites, worms and other microbes that helped regulate the two arms of the immune system — Th1 and TH2. I’ve discussed this relationship in several past articles here and here.

When the immune system becomes damaged, one of the two arms (TH1 and TH2) becomes dominant. This causes the development of chronic allergies, autoimmune diseases and recurrent infections. The more unbalanced the relationship between Th1 and Th2, the more damage to the healthy tissue occurs and the more advanced the autoimmune disease may become.

In healthy individuals, TH1 and TH2 responses are balanced and able to switch back and forth according to the body’s requirements. These responses will activate when appropriate to eradicate a threat and then it will calm down appropriately until the next time an invader appears.

Immune response creates inflammation

What does all this have to do with inflammation? Every time an immune response is activated, chemicals called cytokines are released. These cytokines are purveyors of inflammation. Therefore, each time an immune response is initiated, inflammation occurs under the radar. If the person’s immune response is unbalanced in the two arms (Th1 and TH2) the response may be inappropriate and will create inflammation.

Inflammation is destructive and chronic inflammation is the basis of all kinds of degenerative diseases. I have already talked about the effects of gluten on susceptible individuals. But there are many other triggers because we are all individuals biochemically.

The author of this very interesting opinion article is Moises Velasquez-Manoff. He is the author of “An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases.” That is a book I will be reading. My only complaint is that he did not give references for the research he quoted and that is why I do not have those references here. I guess an opinion piece does not require that type of documentation but I kind of wish he did include that information.

Are you as interested in this topic of research as I am? Leave a comment and let me know!

This post is shared at: Creative Juice Thursday, Keep It Real Thursday, Simple Lives Thursday, Pennywise Platter, Freaky Friday, Country Homemaker Hop, LHITS, Seasonal Celebration, Sunday School, Barnyard Hop, Monday mania, Tasteful Tuesday, Traditional Tuesday, Hearth & Soul Hop, Whole Food Wednesday, Sustainable Ways, Allergy free Wednesday, Mommy Club, Real Food Wednesday, Healthy 2Day

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  • micki @addhousewife August 29, 2012, 10:33 pm

    very interesting! My son has high functioning autism (and I suspect I do as well). I’ve long thought that there are two disorders happening: genetic autism and an illness related to allergies or autoimmune that has autism-like symptoms. This, IMO, is why some kids recover with dietary and healthy lifestyle changes, and other children do not improve…and it would also explain the unprecedented increase over the last few decades.

    Reply
    • Jill August 30, 2012, 6:31 am

      Hi Micki,
      Yes, the research does talk about various percentages of genetic autism and other causes of autism. One treatment modality does not fit all and that is why there are so many biomedical treatments out there for autism. Unfortunately it is still trial and error is some cases. However, a healing diet like GAPS or SCD is helpful along with other treatments in most cases.

      Reply
  • Mary @ Homemade Dutch Apple Pie August 30, 2012, 6:23 am

    Definitely fascinating. Any suggestions on how to combat/prevent inflammation?

    Reply
  • Jill August 30, 2012, 6:32 am

    Hi Mary,
    I think we are all trying to combat inflammation by avoiding processed foods and eating real.

    Reply
  • Lisa August 30, 2012, 6:34 am

    Great article! Does anyone know if the immune system can be tested for an autoimmune disorder before conception? I am thinking about a second baby and have done a lot of healing through GAPS but wonder if there is an objective way to know about the status of my immune system?

    Reply
    • Jill August 30, 2012, 9:08 am

      Hi Lisa,
      The conventional tests for inflammation are C-Reactive Protein and Sed Rate — but these can go up and down and are not done unless there are symptoms. Alternative docs may suggest IGg food allergy testing as a way to see how that part of the immune system is operating.

      Reply
      • Sunny August 6, 2013, 11:30 am

        Just FYI, the tests for inflammation (I know sed rate for sure, not positive about the CRP) will give a FALSE POSITIVE if you are already pregnant. I guess it isn’t really “false” since pregnancy causes inflammation. But just wanted to point out that these tests aren’t useful once you are actually pregnant.

        Reply
  • Mrs. Mom of 6 August 30, 2012, 7:57 am

    Fascinating article… I’m pregnant and having a state of chronic inflammation for the last two weeks… Gotta bring it down! EEP. I already have one babe on the spectrum….

    I have found that doing GAPS when weaning helps the child’s immune system tremendously. Hopefully I will be able to do that again.

    I ordered the book from my library, can’t wait to get it, but I’m second in line so it will be a while I think. Another book I found interesting was “Healing the New Childhood Epidemics:” Autism, Asthma, ADHD and something else…. it has similar theories, and while the author has never heard of GAPS, it recommends the SCD diet and other things.

    Fascinating topic, keep the posts coming!

    Thanks!

    Reply
  • Lauren August 30, 2012, 8:28 am

    In a word: yes. This makes sense, but I’d like to see those references too, to see how the dots connect on a more micro level.
    Re Mom of 6’s comment: I’ve also heard that doing GAPS intro in the last weeks of pregnancy can be helpful for ensuring the baby’s flora are as optimal as Mom is able to provide. I guess it depends where you’re coming from, dietarily – I’m rather leery of die-off during pregnancy, f.ex. Presumably at weaning those impacts are minimised due to the addition of transitional food sources.

    Reply
    • Laura N. August 30, 2012, 10:17 am

      Yeah, I’d really hesitate to do intro during any part of pregnancy or breastfeeding. I did it while still nursing my 1yo because I had a very bad mold exposure and felt desperate to do something about it. I thought my little guy would be OK, but he got pretty sick and developed a high fever and cried so much, which was uncharacteristic for him. He was miserable for days and it was definitely a result of my die-off. Poor thing! Lots of mommy guilt here. :-/

      I would think that this experience would be even more damaging in utero.

      Reply
  • Cat August 30, 2012, 6:26 pm

    I would love to see someone investigate a correlation between increased inflamation and an increase in the use of GMO’s. About the time diagnosed cases of autism exploded is about the same time that GMO’s came very heavily into use. Just a thought to ponder.

    Reply
  • Jen August 31, 2012, 9:39 am

    I saw this article this week too and am trying to piece together the autism dots as well. This is very compelling. A few months back, I read an article from Whole New Mom about her son’s autism. She stated that her son had sensitivities prior to vaccines that were likely related to this very thing (gut and inflammation presumably) and that vaccinations compounded the problem.

    My slight concern is over generally calling inflammation ‘bad’. I would agree that chronic inflammation is bad. I get that this is the type of inflammation that the article is referring to. But my husband is in the medical field and he tells me that temporary inflammation is good as it is the body’s way of eliminating disease and toxins. I might have misinterpreted what you wrote when you said “Inflammation is destructive and chronic inflammation is the basis of all kinds of degenerative diseases”. But I think this is where people get all kinds of confused and try to avoid ‘inflammatory’ foods because they think they are’ bad’ when in fact a balance is needed.

    Look forward to hearing your thoughts on this. 🙂

    Reply
    • Jill August 31, 2012, 11:37 am

      Hi Jen,
      Yes, I mean that chronic inflammation is not good. Acute (or temporary as you put it) inflammation is the body’s way of protecting us — however there is always symptoms. i.e., you fall and hurt your ankle and it gets swollen as the body’s attempt to stabilize the area — but you will have swelling, bruising and stiffness there.

      Chronic inflammation may or may not have symptoms — it may be “silent” and that is where it gets destructive and leads to other conditions. Researchers are finding inflammation associated with lots of diseases if they look for it.

      Some foods are “inflammatory” for some people — such as gluten and grains — for others it may be dairy, eggs, etc.

      Reply
      • Jen August 31, 2012, 2:34 pm

        That is so interesting because depending on who you listen to often you will hear that grains ARE inflammatory others say meat IS. Makes my head spin. But I believe you are right — certain foods are toxic to certain people causing that inflammatory response. I think the problem is that we have come to a period of time when it could be several factors that cause these responses in people. We wind up never being able to nail it down because of all the conflicting toxins and new fangled technologies in our food. Aye.

        Anyway, thanks for the clarification. I guess the next question is: How do we identify or diagnose the silent inflammatory responses?
        Love your posts. They are always so informative!

        Reply
        • Jill August 31, 2012, 3:04 pm

          Hi Jen,
          That’s the million dollar question.

          Reply
  • Miia September 1, 2012, 3:57 am

    Hi, yes this is a very interesting point. I guess some of you read about the GAPS diet and the book, explains a lot of the connections between the autism and problems in the gut. For me personally I am very interested in the Th1 and Th2 balance and what I can do about it… There is so much gaps for me in this area which I would want to fill.. Specially about how stress affects the biochemistry in the body and leads to an autoimmune response.

    Reply
  • Herbert Smith September 4, 2012, 4:05 pm

    Here’s a list of source for the NYT article – the research is actually quite extensive.
    http://www.moisesvm.com/2012/08/30/source-list-for-nyt-op-ed/

    Reply
  • Tiffany @ DontWastetheCrumbs September 4, 2012, 9:02 pm

    This is a very interesting article… as a mother of 2, we’ve been concerned about autism since they were born. This article helps to explain how Jenny McCarthy cured her son of autism through diet. It seems our diet is the cause, and cure, for so many horrible diseases out there!

    Reply
  • Kirstan September 4, 2012, 9:33 pm

    Hi, I have been reading a lot of PubMed articles on the autism/autoimmune connection, the most interesting one to date was a study in which they used N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) , which they gave to rats 2 days before giving birth after having exposed them to lipopolysaccharides (a substance the outer shell of many bacteria are made of including E-coli) which is highly toxic (most toxic to humans) and causes an immune response in the infected host. ALL male rats that were born to the untreated mothers suffered neurological damage, interestingly not the females, but ALL rats born to the mothers treated with NAC after exposure to the bacterial toxin suffered no neurological damage. I have a 4 year old on the spectrum and I had severe gastro while I was pregnant with him (had to have IV fluids)… Maybe E-coli? I wonder where we would be now if I had taken NAC after the gastro infection?? Makes you think…..

    Reply
    • Jill September 4, 2012, 9:49 pm

      Hi Kirstan,
      That is interesting — and it does seem the boys are more affected than girls.

      Reply
      • Catie March 21, 2013, 9:53 am

        Thanks so much for this insight! We have 2 sons and 1 daughter (she’s the middle child). My oldest has Aspergers and my youngest has severe allergies and speech/sensory issues. She is very well adjusted and has had no development issues. I always wondered why she seemed to be the lucky one 🙂

        Reply
        • Heather May 7, 2013, 10:00 pm

          I have 3 children on the spectrum, but my 8-year-old daughter seemed to be unaffected, until recently. She started having issues in the last year. As I did more research I learned that girls often go undiagnosed because they’re symptoms are more “acceptable” and/or they learn to cope with/compensate for their symptoms. It seems a lot of girls aren’t diagnosed until they’re older. Often not until their own children are diagnosed. I’m not trying to worry you about your daughter. I hope that’s not the way this comes off. My older daughter is also autistic, but was misdiagnosed until recently. Now that we know what the problem is we have found a lot better ways to cope and she seems to be doing better. If your daughter is ever diagnosed with something else like anxiety, bi-polar, ADHD please ask a lot of questions and get second opinions.

          Reply
  • nicolette @ momnivore's dilemma September 5, 2012, 8:37 pm

    I read that NYTimes article last week. As an autism mom who is close to many ASD kids and their families, I see an autoimmune component.

    Chronic inflammation is a huge issue, and measuring oxidative stress is a key indicator.

    Thanks for sharing this last week, Jill. I put your article front and center at today’s features at Creative Juice Thursday…

    Thanks for spreading the news of this beyond the ASD community…

    Reply
  • Lyza@ Chic Shades of Green September 7, 2012, 10:43 pm

    The NYT article was really fascinating to me, but also very overwhelming too. Chronic inflammation seems to be at the root of so many diseases/disorders. It’s important to me that my daughter doesn’t develop one when she gets older, it seems like diet has a lot of influence. Sometimes its so hard to know what the right thing to eat is though.

    Reply
  • April @ The 21st Century Housewife September 9, 2012, 7:41 am

    This is very thought-provoking. I have been reading a lot about inflammation being a problem in so many areas…Thank you for sharing this comprehensive and very well written post.

    Reply
  • amber September 11, 2012, 7:11 pm

    Hi Jill,

    This article was incredibly interesting.

    It makes sense that chronic inflammation is on the rise, as is autism. Could these two be connected? This article really got me thinking.

    It was also sort of alarming, as I have many issues with inflammation – and not just with the Crohn’s. But also with Lupus (lung and heart inflammation) and other areas of my body that inflame (correlating mainly with hormones and my cycle). It’s good I didn’t know about this when I was pregnant – I would have been stressing all the time (on top of all the other stuff you have to worry about when growing a baby, right), geez.

    I really enjoy reading your informative articles highlighting research. I mostly read ABA (applied behavior analysis) research, as this is of great personal interest to me, but I love reading research/science on topics of health and diet. And there has been some very interesting literature regarding autism in recent years.

    I started working with children, teens and adults with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) in 1999. I was a behaviorist at the time. Although I’m currently a L.C.S.W., my interest has always been in the field of DD (developmental disabilities). I’ve watched incredible progress take place in the field. Here in Northern California (Sacramento) we have amazing services and a top notch research facility (The UC Davis MIND Institute). I’ve also seen first hand how diet and therapy can literally change lives. Sort of like a longitudinal study, I’ve watched children grow and develop starting at 18 months old (now 12 & 13 years old)! I’m still in contact with many of the families I worked with.

    Okay, sorry, this is getting long.

    I’ll be featuring this article tonight.

    Thanks Jill, for all you do! (cyber hug)

    Reply
    • Jill September 11, 2012, 9:44 pm

      Hi Amber,
      Thanks for your interesting thoughts. I have worked with ASD kids just in the context of nutritional advice. I have found that if the parents are on board and will follow GAPS or SCD protocols, the kids do really well in their progress.

      It is exciting and fascinating to read all the new research with alternative biomedical treatments and how these apply to autoimmune disorders and inflammatory disorders as well as ASD.

      Reply
  • CCM September 28, 2012, 8:43 pm

    My daughter is healing well from a crippling inflammatory disease: rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve been voraciously reading about the Weston A. Price diet, GAPS, primal, paleo, etc. I agree that it’s difficult to figure out the right diet for you since each person may have different dietary triggers. Many people seem to heal from difficult inflammatory conditions using variations of these diets. One thing these diets all share in common is a strict avoidance of preservatives, MSG, artificial flavors/colors/sweeteners; avoidance of processed sugars, processed grains and ESPECIALLY avoidance of high-Omega 6 /transfats (canola, soy, corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, grapeseed).

    Reply
    • Jill September 28, 2012, 8:53 pm

      Hi CCM,
      Glad to hear it is helping. I agree, one needs to avoid all the things you mentioned — just for better health in general as well as healing from an autoimmune disorder.

      Reply
  • Eleanor March 19, 2013, 10:48 am

    A fascinating article. I’ve done a lot of research into diet and auto-immune disorders as I suffer from Psoriatic Arthritis (similar to RA) and Collagenous Colitis. I am 34 weeks pregnant at the moment and have been on an almost vegan diet for the duration of my pregnancy. No dairy and only occasionally goats milk products and I eat eggs. I currently have no inflammation, but if I cheat on my diet I notice signs of inflammation by the following day.

    What is even more interesting to me is that I have a dear friend who is an RA sufferer and his sister is severely autistic. Genetically, their father has the auto-immune variants.

    Reply
    • Jill March 19, 2013, 12:37 pm

      @ Eleanor,
      Thanks for your comments. Usually autoimmune diseases get better during pregnancy as the body tamps down the mother’s immune system so she does not reject the fetus.

      The GAPS diet is a very good diet for inflammatory conditions.

      Reply
  • mäklare farsta strand April 17, 2013, 12:36 am

    This is a great tip especially to those
    new to the blogosphere. Short but very precise info… Many thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read article!

    Reply
  • Nelda April 24, 2013, 1:41 am

    I am a long term sufferer of autoimmune issues,food allergies and hypothyroidism. I have recently discovered a new product called anatabloc that controlls low grade chronic inflammation in your body. I’ve been taking it for about three weeks and I can already tell a difference in my stamina and energy levels. I think that a lot of athletes are using it but I know that John Hopkins dept of endocrinology is doing clinical trials with it in regards to decreasing the effects of hypothyroidism. If autism is an autoimmune disease could it not possibly help it also? I encourage you to go to the website and watch the information and see the mechanism of action involved in this product. I think it could be an answer for people with autoimmune issues

    Reply
    • Jill April 24, 2013, 10:47 am

      Hi Nelda,
      I went to the website for Anatabloc — Kind of surprising that something from a nightshade (peppers and tomato) would be helpful as nightshades are usually avoided by people with autoimmunity.

      It’s also pricy. But I guess if it helps — great. I would be interested to see all the research that is going on with it.

      Reply
  • sarah m May 14, 2013, 8:58 am

    I was interested to read this- i follow a lot of these issues since 1. I’m a med student, 2. I have IBD and have been on SCD for over a year, 3. have worked with kids with autism in the past and 4. am working on autism research through school 🙂 So i’m interested in it academically, but also because I’m concerned about the impact my IBD might have on future children. I liked what you wrote, and I wanted to make two points.

    -there is a major issue in the global autism data that with regards to cultures with no reports of autism, well, it also tends to be that no one has looked for them, so there just is no data, for or against. This is specifically my area of research, and it seems when trained professionals are sent into these communities, a lot of autism is found, and I mean mod-severe, floundering in regular special ed, with their parents exhausted and at their wit’s end. it would also seem to me that if inflammation in utero increases the odds of autism, that would likely be relevent to mothers suffering from infectious disease just as much as mother’s suffering from auto-immune and auto-inflammatory disease.

    -It isn’t just that Andrew Wakefield has been persecuted, it’s that he fabricated data, and used unethical and unscientific data collection methods that muddied the field, and sent parents and researchers chasing dead ends. I’d be wary of how reliable his work is- not that it’s automatically wrong, but it would need to be replicated elsewhere by more reliable researchers.

    Reply
    • Jill May 20, 2013, 7:47 pm

      Hi Sarah,
      Interesting points. I would be interested to see the populations you speak of that have autism but have not been counted.

      My personal view is that Andrew Wakefield has been framed because the entire vaccine issue is so inflammatory. I can’t wait to hear him speak at the next Weston Price conference. I will make further judgements then.

      It is a fact that most autistic children have gut issues so his research has clearly added something to the pool of information we have. His research needs to be replicated but I doubt anyone would touch it without a ten foot pool.

      Reply
      • Andrew August 6, 2013, 10:23 am

        “…Framed because the entire vaccine issue is so inflammatory,” I hope the pun was intended, because it hits the nail on the head for how our son was affected. We have documentation that it was the combination of a chronic inflammatory response (immune system response) to vaccination (which is how vaccines “work”) that led to the diagnosis of autism in our son (although it’s not traditional autism in most of the new high numbers of kids, but an injury that causes the symptoms). The tinges of regret my wife and I feel center around our great pediatrician answering our vaccine questions with a general discreditation of Wakefield as the “only study and its science doesn’t hold up.” Of course, we know now…

        Reply
        • Jill August 6, 2013, 10:46 am

          Hi Andrew,
          Unfortunately vaccines are formulated for “healthy” children.There is no protocol to determine if a child is healthy enough to receive a vaccine, hence the population of children that react to a vaccine with inflammation, while other children seem to be OK. We do our best with the information we have at the time…

          Reply
  • Melanie December 16, 2013, 1:59 am

    I am autistic with savant skills, and I normally function better than the average autistic in social skills. I recently worked in a building with toxic mold which made me very ill, and the illness brought out the less desireable effects of the autism, and hampered my social skills considerably. I have researched my own health, and found the worsening symptoms were linked to an autoimmune disorder, and affecting my digestive tract. I have tracked how I react to food for years, as I was told I had celiac disease and had eliminated wheat from my diet. I found recently that all carbohydrates seem to be the culprit, and that I do not have celiac. The autoimmune disorder is called auto-brewry syndrome, but it is actually a form of yeast in the digestive tract. The worsening symptoms are due to the carbohydrates turning into alcohol inside my body in response to the high white blood count from infection. Strong antibiotics work, probiotic acidophilus, and acidic foods are working so far to eliminate some of the yeast. I have been trying to convince several doctors that I believe the yeast can at least be controlled by modern medicine and foods. I have had this problem before, and been to holistic doctors who have been able to help me, but I am no longer in an area that has anyone like that. All three of my children show the more favorable autistic tendencies, and the auto-immune disorder does not seem to be as prominent in them as it is myself. (Thank goodness) I am not sure if medical science will ever catch up, but I hope my findings will help someone.

    Reply
    • Jill December 16, 2013, 10:18 pm

      Hi Melanie,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. I have heard of auto-brewery syndrome — in fact I believe I seem to remember that a famous writer had it. A low carb diet is certainly in order here.

      Reply
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