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Autism and Probiotics, New Info Parents Should Know

Autism and probiotics

Probiotics, also known as good or beneficial bacteria, have been touted for a number of health issues, especially those related to gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. For parents of children with autism, a new study about how probiotics may help joins previous promising data on the relationship between autism and good bacteria.

How are autism and GI problems related?

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) frequently show signs and symptoms of GI problems, especially constipation, although bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, esophageal reflux, and gas are also reported. Some studies also show that children with ASD have nutritional deficiencies and gut flora (bacteria population in the GI tract) that differ from children without autism.

Think about how your feel if you experience GI problems, especially constipation, bloating, and gas. These symptoms can affect your food choices, appetite, mood, and behavior, and they can have all of these effects on children with autism as well. In kids with ASD, however, GI symptoms could make autistic symptoms worse.

What is new about autism and probiotics?
In a new study, published in the Journal of Probiotics & Health, investigators evaluated the use of a proprietary probiotic formulation containing common probiotics (i.e., Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. casei, L. delbruecki, Bifidobacteria longum, B. bifidum, 2 billion colony forming unit [CFUs] each) and 8 mg of Del-Immune V powder (peptidoglycan, muramyl peptides and DNA motifs derived from L. rhamnosus V strain). The powder component is an immunomodulator designed to address inflammation and immune dysfunction, which has been reported in children with ASD.

Parents and caregivers of children with ASD were asked to administer 3 capsules of the probiotic supplement daily. Twenty-five children (age range, 3-17) completed the 42-day study, which involved the following:

  • Stool frequency diary kept for 21 days before starting the supplement and then 21 days during the 21-day treatment period
  • ATEC scores both before and after treatment. Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist is used to evaluate autism severity in four areas: communication skills, sociability, sensory/cognitive awareness, and health/physical/behavior.

Here are the results of the study:

  • Mean ATEC scores declined significantly when the children took the probiotic supplement. Of the 25 kids who completed the study, 88% had a decrease in total ATEC score, which indicates a decline in autism symptom severity
  • 48% of respondents (21 completed pre-treatment stool diaries and 18 completed post-treatment diaries) reported a decrease in diarrhea severity and 52% had a reduction in constipation severity
  • No participants reported severe diarrhea after taking the probiotic supplement compared with 20% before supplement use

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Although this study had several limitations, such as a small population size, lack of a placebo group, and that the product was tested and reported by the manufacturer, the findings do support those of some previous studies.

Previous research on autism and probiotics
In a large review of the role of probiotics in autism, investigators at the University of California, Davis, evaluated dozens of studies that looked at gut flora, immune dysfunction, and autism. They pointed out several promising findings, noting that “Probiotics may offer a potential therapeutic that could beneficially alter the gut-brain axis and modify aberrant behaviors related to altered immune inflammatory outputs,” which was a factor explored in the new study.

In the UCD review, the authors concluded that their review of the literature showed that “support emerges for the clinical testing of probiotics in ASD, especially in the context of addressing GI symptoms.”

In a more recent study, researchers evaluated stool samples in children with autism. They discovered that the presence of autistic symptoms was associated with a deficiency or abnormally low levels of certain bacteria; namely, Coprococcus, Prevotella, and Veillonellaceae.

Although this finding does not allow researchers to make any definitive statements about autism and gut bacteria, they did note that the research helps to identify “specific microorganism(s) that can be targeted for diagnosis as well as for treatment of autism-related GI problems and possibly other autistic symptoms.”

The role of probiotics in autism is still unclear, but the evidence is growing that these good bacteria may have a positive impact on children who suffer with this condition. Parents of children with autism who want to explore the possibility of using probiotics or other natural approaches for their children should discuss the topic with a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

Critchfield JW et al. The potential role of probiotics in the management of childhood autism spectrum disorders. Gastroenterology Research Practices 2011; 2011:161358. Epub Oct 26
Kang D-W et al. Reduced incidence of Prevotella and other fermenters in intestinal microflora of autistic children. PLoS ONE 2013; 8(7): e68322
West R et al. Improvements in gastrointestinal symptoms among children with autism spectrum disorder receiving the Delpro probiotic and immunomodulator formulation. Journal of Probiotics & Health 2013

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