Disclaimer: As a Functional Medicine doctor, it is my intent to seek out and present many approaches to health and recommend what is best for my patients on an individual basis. In the case of vaccines, I am pro-vaccine-safety; I believe they can be helpful and necessary but that we should continue to pursue a more nuanced scientific perspective about the risks versus benefits in uniquely susceptible populations.
UNTIL THE LATE 1960’S THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY BELIEVED that autism was caused by “bad mothering”. Today, most people — and most of the medical community — believes that Autism is a genetic brain disorder. I’m here to tell you that neither one of these statements is true.
Think about it. Rates of autism have skyrocketed over the years, from an estimated 1 child in 3,000 to just 1 in 59 kids today. Sure, wider criteria for diagnosis and better detection might explain some of it — but not an increase of this magnitude.
The real reason we are seeing increasing rates of autism is simply this: Autism is a systemic body disorder that affects the brain. A toxic environment triggers certain genes in people susceptible to this condition. And research supports this position.
Today I will review some of this research and explain how imbalances in the 7 key systems of the body may be the real cause–and thus the real cure–of autism.
A New Understanding of Autism
Dramatic scientific discoveries have taken place during the last 10 to 20 years that reveal the true causes of autism — and turn conventional thinking on its head. For example, Martha Herbert, MD, a pediatric neurologist from Harvard Medical School has painted a picture of autism that shows how core abnormalities in body systems like immunity, gut function, and detoxification play a central role in causing the behavioral and mood symptoms of autism.
She’s also given us a new way of looking at mental disease (and disease in general) that is based on systems biology. Coming from the halls of the most conservative medical institution in the world, this is a call so loud and clear that it shatters our normal way of looking at things.
Everything is connected, Dr. Herbert says. The fact that these kids have smelly bowel movements, bloated bellies, frequent colds and ear infections, and dry skin is not just a coincidence that has nothing to do with their brain function. It is central to why they are sick in the first place! Yet conventional medicine often ignores this.
My friend and mentor, Sidney Baker, MD — a pioneer in the treatment of autism as a body disorder that affects the brain — often says, “Do you see what you believe or do you believe what you see?”
The problem in medicine is we are so stuck in seeing what we believe that we often ignore what is right in front of us because it doesn’t fit our belief system. Nowhere is this true more than in the treatment of autism.
This is in the front of my mind, because I see so many behavioral symptoms in kids from learning disabilities to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even autism.
And I see the rates of medication use skyrocketing for these kids — from stimulants to anti-psychotics (one of the fastest growing drug categories) to anti-seizure medicine, and more. There is another way … Let me tell you a story about a little boy I saw recently.
Treating autism as a body disorder that affects the brain gives us many treatment choices. Children treated in this way can often have dramatic and remarkable — if not miraculous — recoveries.
Sam’s Case: Autism as a Systemic Disorder
Recently, a mother came to see me, desperate because her 2 1/2 year old son had just been diagnosed with autism.
Her son, Sam, was born bright and happy, was breast-fed, and received the best medical care available (including all the vaccinations he could possibly have). He talked, walked, loved, and played normally — that is, until after his measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination at 22 months.
He received diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella, chicken pox, hepatitis A and B, influenza, pneumonia, hemophilous, and meningitis vaccines — all before he was 2 years old. Then something changed. Vaccines may affect susceptible children through different mechanisms. In some it is overwhelming of an already taxed immune system with over 2 dozen vaccinations at a very young age, for some it is the thimerosal (ethylmercury) used as a preservative until recently in most vaccines (although it is still present in most flu vaccines).
He lost his language abilities and became detached. He was unable to relate in normal ways with his parents and other children. And he became withdrawn, and less interactive. These are all signs of autism.
Sam was taken to the best doctors in New York and “pronounced” as having autism, as if it were a thing you catch like a bug. His parents were told that nothing could be done except arduously painful and barely effective behavioral and occupational therapy techniques. The progress would be slow, and his parents should keep their expectations low, the doctor said. Devastated, the mother began to seek other options and found her way to me.
There is much to undo and peel away, like the layers of an onion. But treating autism as a body disorder that affects the brain gives us SO many other treatment choices. Children treated in this way can often have dramatic and remarkable — if not miraculous — recoveries.
Before I explain how I found the clues that gave me a means to treat Sam, let me remind you that the whole basis of functional and systems medicine is the concept of biochemical individuality.
That means that if you take 100 kids with autism, each one may have unique genetics, and unique causes or triggers for their autism and need very different treatments to get better. Autism is just a label. Like every condition or illness, the key is to dig into the layers and peel the onion to discover what is really happening. It is not usually one thing but a collection of insults, toxins and deficiencies piled on susceptible genetics that leads to biochemical train wrecks we see in these children.
We have to pay close attention to what we see, and be ready to work with the unexpected according to the basic principles of systems biology and medicine (known as functional medicine).
That is what I did for Sam …
When I first saw him, this little boy was deep in the inner wordless world of autism. Watching him was like watching someone on a psychedelic drug trip. So we dug into his biochemistry and genetics and found many things to account for the problems he was having.
He had very high level of antibodies to gluten. He was allergic not only to wheat, but to dairy, eggs, yeast, and soy — about 28 foods in total.
He also had a leaky gut, and his gut was very inflamed. The immune system in his gut showed a high level of inflammation by a marker called eosinophil protein X. He had 3 species of yeast growing in his gut and no growth of healthy bacteria. Urine tests showed very high levels of D-lactate, an indicator of overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine.
Sam was also deficient in zinc, magnesium, and manganese, vitamins A, B12, and D, and omega-3 fats. Like many children with autism, he had trouble making energy in his cells, or mitochondria.
His amino acids — necessary for normal brain function and detoxification — were depleted. And his blood showed high levels of aluminum and lead, while his hair showed very high levels of antimony and arsenic — signs of a very toxic little boy. His levels of sulfur and glutathione were low, indicating that he just couldn’t muster the power to detox all these metals. In fact, his genes showed a major weak spot in glutathione metabolism, which is the body’s main antioxidant and major detoxification highway for getting rid of metals and pesticides.
Sam also had trouble with a key biochemical function called methylation that is required to make normal neurotransmitters and brain chemicals and is critical for helping the body get rid of toxins. This showed up as low levels of homocysteine (signs of problems with folate metabolism) and high methylmalonic acid (signs of problems with B12 metabolism). He also had two genes that set him up for more problems with this system.
Finally, he also had very high levels of oxidative stress or free radical activity, including markers that told me that his brain was inflamed and under free-radical fire.
This may all seem complicated, but it really isn’t. When I see any patient, I simply work through the 7 keys to UltraWellness (based on functional medicine) to see how everything is connected, create a plan to get to the causes of the problems, and then help each patient deal with all the biochemical and physiological rubble that those causes have left along the road.
After 10 months, Sam’s bowels were back to normal, he was verbally fluent, mainstreamed in school and he “lost” his diagnosis of autism.
Having a roadmap, a new GPS system based on functional medicine and UltraWellness, makes this straightforward. You just take away what’s bothering the patient. Give his body what it is missing and needs to thrive (based on the individual’s biochemical uniqueness). Then the body does the rest.
Here is the roadmap I used to help Sam recover.
Sam’s Roadmap to Recovery: A Model for Treating Autism
Step 1: Fix His Gut and Cool the Inflammation There
This step included a number of different tactics including:
- Taking away gluten and other food allergens
- Getting rid of his yeast with anti-fungals
- Killing off the toxic bacteria in his small intestine with special antibiotics
- Replenishing healthy bacteria with probiotics
- Helping him digest his food with enzymes
Step 2: Replace the Missing Nutrients to Help His Genes Work Better
In Sam’s case we:
- Added back zinc, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, B6, B12, and D
- Supported his brain with omega-3 fats
Step 3: Detoxify and Reduce Oxidative Stress
Once his biochemistry and nutrition was tuned up, we helped him detoxify and reduce oxidative stress.
As I said before, the keys of UltraWellness can help, no matter what the disease or condition. You see, biology has basic laws, which we have to follow and understand. All the details of Sam’s story fit into these laws. We just have to dig deep, peel back the layers, and understand what is going on. When we do this the results are nothing short of miraculous …
After following a gluten-free diet and treating his gut for 3 weeks, Sam showed dramatic and remarkable improvement. He’s getting back much of his language skills and showing much more connection and relatedness in his interactions.
After 4 months, he was more focused, unstuck and verbal.
After 10 months, his bowels were back to normal, he was verbally fluent, mainstreamed in school and he “lost” his diagnosis of autism.
After 2 years all his abnormal tests were normal including the high metals, gut inflammation and damage to his mitochondria and free radicals.
And more importantly, the child was totally normal. Not every child has such a dramatic recovery but many improve, and some improve dramatically using the approach of functional or systems medicine.
Every child with behavior problems, ADHD, or autism is unique — and each has to find his or her own path with a trained doctor. But the gates are open and the wide road of healing is in front of you. You simply have to take the first step.
Please visit the Defeat Autism Now website for more information on this subject, including resources and conferences for doctors and parents.
Now I’d like to hear from you…
Are you raising a child with autism?
How is he or she being treated?
Have you tried any of the approaches here? How have they helped?
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below — but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
Because of the interest in this topic and controversies surrounding it, I am posting all the references for the issues talked about in the article.
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