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Could Taking Probiotics Prevent Autism?

August 28, 2012

Is autism caused by our extreme cleanliness? A recent editorial in the New York Times suggests it might be that straightforward – and the solution could be as simple as taking a dietary supplement.

According to the author, Moises Valsquez-Manoff, a large subset of autism is a sort of inflammatory disease that begins in utero – and is the indirect result of living in a world that’s too sterile.

It all has to do with inflammation and the immune system during pregnancy. A woman who’s hospitalized for the flu during the first trimester of pregnancy is three times more likely to have an autistic child – not because the virus attacked the fetus, but because the mother’s own immune system did. Maternal inflammatory antibodies, designed to repel the invading organism that’s making the mother sick, seem to damage fetal brain development in a way that leads to behavioral problems that are consistent with autism.

There are many sources of inflammation – most significantly, rheumatoid arthritis during pregnancy elevates a child’s risk of autism by 80%, and celiac disease does by a whopping 350%. Even asthma or allergies during the second trimester can increase the odds.

What does cleanliness have to do with it? According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” rates of inflammatory diseases have skyrocketed over the past several decades because our bodies are maladapted to live in today’s hyper-sterile environment. We evolved to peacefully co-exist with microbes and parasites, which benefit us by limiting inflammation. (Scientists found that filthy sewer rats, ridden with parasites, had far less inflammation than clean lab rats.)

In today’s nearly infection-free world, our immune systems have come unhinged and are in a state of chronic inflammation. That’s given rise to skyrocketing rates of autoimmune diseases and allergies that are linked to autism. At least one Western doctor has noted that autism is nearly non-existent in Cambodia, where much of the population has parasites and acute infections – and autism seems to be less prevalent in most of the less sterile developing world.

The solution? Velasquez-Manoff says it’s not crazy to intentionally ingest “domesticated” parasites as a way of correcting our broken immune systems. Acknowleding that this is impractical advice for many Westerners, he also argues that taking probiotics, known for their anti-inflammatory effects, could be a good start for pregnant women.

This is far from the first time that it’s been argued that diet changes can help autism. Integrative Nutrition visiting teacher Dr. Mark Hyman has reported success in treating autistic children by approaching it as a systemic body disorder that affects the brain.

Does the idea that taking probiotics could prevent autism sound far-fetched to you?