Gut bacteria seems to be a health catch-phrase as of late, as we learn more and more about how the trillions of bacteria within our digestive system can influence our overall health and wellness. Adding on to the countless benefits of maintaining a healthy amount of friendly flora, a recent study links bountiful gut bacteria to a lessened risk of autism in children.
Other studies linking autism and gut bacteria have focused on the role of “bad” or potentially harmful bacteria in the digestive system. According to researchers with Arizona State University, their study instead looked at the role of beneficial or “good” bacteria.
“One of the reasons we started addressing this topic is the fact that autistic children have a lot of GI problems that can last into adulthood,” Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and lead author of the study says. “Studies have shown that when we manage these problems, their behavior improves dramatically.”
The study was small, looking at 40 children, of which 20 had autism and 20 did not. The researchers analyzed their gut bacteria through fecal samples and found those children with autism had significantly less beneficial bacteria than the children without the disorder. This would make them more vulnerable to other, harmful bacteria.
Autism is a spectrum disorder whose symptoms can range from depression and anxiety, to poor social functioning and complete dependence. It’s estimated to effect one-in 50 children, and that rate has been perplexingly on the rise in recent years. Western diet, environmental toxins, and over-dependence on antibiotics (which is in line with the Arizona State University research) have all been looked at as potential causes.
As for the researchers with ASU:
Lower diversity of gut microbes was positively correlated with the presence of autistic symptoms in the study. The authors stress that bacterial richness and diversity are essential for maintaining a robust and adaptable bacterial community capable of fighting off environmental challenges. “We believe that a diverse gut is a healthy gut,” lead researcher Krajmalnik-Brown says.
Because gut bacteria affects so many facets of our health, their findings are not entirely surprising. Several studies have linked childhood antibiotic use with autism. Because antibiotics are known to not only wipe out infection-causing bacteria but also the beneficial bacteria needed to regulate the body’s immune and other systems, the connection between autism and bacteria deepens.
While the latest study, published in PLOS One, was small and more research can only bolster the connection between autism and well-balanced gut flora, this doesn’t mean we have to wait before taking action. You can encourage healthy gut bacteria in yourself and your children by only using antibiotics when absolutely necessary and by consuming fermented foods that contain live cultures. If an imbalance is suspected, supplementing with probiotics can restore harmony in your digestive system. After all, out gut flora could account for up to 80% of our immunity.