Can probiotics benefit children with autism spectrum disorders?

WELCOME TO THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF ‘WHAT’S OUR TAKE ON IT!?’ 

(We read scientific journals and distill the core ideas into bite-sized, easy-to-read English!)

First the formalities…todays journal is from Houston, Texas, USA and poses the question-do probiotics work for our kids with autism? Click the link below if you want to see the full article:

Navarro F, Liu Y, Rhoads JM. Can probiotics benefit children with autism spectrum disorders? World Journal of Gastroenterology. 2016;22(46):10093-10102. doi:10.3748/wjg.v22.i46.10093. Click here for original text

IMO probiotics are a confusing lot! Walk into any good pharmacy these days and they’ll present you with a 20+ selection to choose from. Combine these with the new ones coming out each year and it’s easy to fall behind. Hence why I’m looking at some research data to see if I can make any sense of it for you.

Again I’m talking about autism, a topic I covered in the last blog [insert link] because I’m starting to see more and more of it daily. I also think probiotics are cutting edge stuff yet still cloaked in mystique.

INTRO

Good bacteria live inside us. There they perform things like digest the carbohydrates (sugars) we eat, manufacture vitamins, help absorb nutrients, boost our immune system and the list goes on. Because they live in our gut, scientists believe they are involved with common symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, constipation, and stomach aches. To be precise, scientists think that when there’s an imbalance of good vs bad bacteria…it can cause said problems. Their Question is: Do probiotics help kids with autism-specifically their gut problems?

BACKGROUND

When two events happen at the same time and a definite link can be found…it’s called a causation. When there is a possibility (but unconfirmed) of a link…its called a correlation. Scientists think there’s an correlation between autism and their gut problems. i.e. 40% of autistic kids have gut problems. Fix the gut fix the autism? Not so fast!

What problems?

..feeding abnormalities, gastroesophageal reflux, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fecal incontinence, constipation, and alternating diarrhea and constipation.

HYPOTHESIS

Theories abound for why autistic kids have more gut issues. One of these is inflammation. When you sprain your ankle, it starts to swell with blood; it hurts to touch-let alone walk on; and it looks pinkish-red. This is inflammation and it can happen on a smaller scale inside your gut. Scientists can measure things like cytokines and special sugars and enzymes to say Yes there’s something going on. Unfortunately the evidence isn’t clear cut. One group says one thing and another the opposite.

Another theory is that autistic kids have guts that are just more sensitive to stimuli such as various foods in our diet. Their symptoms resemble those of adults who have IBS. So maybe it’s just IBS that our kids have and the gut problems have no link to autism?

THE DATA

So if probiotics can perform wonderful things, why not just stick them in the gut? There’s a 1000 species of bacteria in our gut and in total their numbers are in the trillions. We just don’t know what does what and where (stomach, small intestines, large intestines, etc). Scientists think that it’s not so much the bacteria but the by-products bacteria produce. Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs) are such a by-product which is supposed to affect our brain chemicals (neurotransmitters e.g. dopamine) as well as behaviour and moods.

Here are some examples:

Bifidobacterium bifidum – may help prevent leaky gut aka unwanted toxins getting absorbed… (tested in animals)

Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) – may help reduce ADHD and Aspergers syndrome in the newborn. (tested in humans)

Lactobacillus reuteri – may help with behaviour issues (tested in animals)

 

CONCLUSION

All that said…scientists are still dumbfounded as to whether probiotics can definitely help [human] kids or not. First it’s an ethical question…if you knew your child was sick and needed treatment..would you sign them up to a clinical study where they might only get placebo tablets vs the real thing? I know I wouldn’t. So evidence is lacking. Our knowledge therefore is also lacking. Making informed decisions therefore is guesswork at best.

BLOGGER’S TAKE

So what’s a parent to do? Considering that most probiotics on the market are generally safe, my take on it is that you can trial and error your child on different brands for say 1-2 months, keep a bowel motion diary (many on iPhone/Android App stores) and stay in touch with your doctor. Exceptions to this advice would be and not limited to: those with weak immune systems e.g. HIV-AIDS, auto-immune conditions like lupus, organ transplant patients, patients with large sections of their gut removed through surgery, and/or patients with heart issues.

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