Autism the Gut Brain Connection

My Notes from The Healthy Gut Summit

Dr. Martha Herbert PhD – Pediatric Neurologist

Autism is an extreme case of what is effecting an enormous amount of people.

They have always thought that Autism was a behavioral or psychological problem but now with the enormous revolution of information about the gut we realize that what’s going on in the gut can have enormous effects on the way the brain functions. We are talking about brain function, we now know the brain is very changeable not hard wired.

Sleep is a very important part when the brain has a chance to repair itself. We have recently learned that the brain takes the trash out at night, there are fluid flows that drain it out but not enough sleep interrupts this. The brain needs a lot of nutrients to do it’s job, it needs them to contribute to energy metabolism not just fuel. If you don’t have them in your diet or your gut is too inflamed to absorb them you are going to have shortages in the brain that are going to get in the way of your brain having the chemicals and other energy generating processes that it needs to do it’s job. This looks like you have a psychological or learning problem but the source of the problem is underneath the shortages that can be gut and diet generated.

There are neurons and glial cells in both the brain and the gut that communicate with each other and a huge part of the operating system working right. They can get immune activated from infections, toxins or trauma and when their inflamed they do a lousy job of housecleaning. When you have all this “noise” going on inside the brain it can’t tell if it came from inside or outside. If your head feels fizzy, you just can’t focus, days when you feel foggy or what I deal with Autism a kind of roaring and they have that internal noise that interferes with your ability to pay attention and learn from the outside world. These housekeeping functions play a really big roll in how our brains function. Most of the time in neuroscience people have just been looking at neurons and not the glial cells which are the clean up crew. They are not looking at the blood supply or the extracellular matrix which is all the stuff in between the cells that actually does a lot of work. What we know about neurons is good it’s just not the whole story.

They have found that when the fluids that are supposed to be flowing are blocked Alzheimer’s develops more rapidly. I recommend the book Healing Pain and Injury. Trauma can also cause blockages and there are cranial treatments that can unblock that.

It’s Important to keep your nutrients up but it’s also important to have a balance of nutrients. If you have an imbalance of gut bacteria you can have byproducts produced that aggravate the brain that make the brain and immune system have to fight off with a kind of inflammatory response. It’s not clear how well we understand that but we do have to keep things well balanced so you have optimal support and the least amount of irritation.

The bad gut bacteria, certain one’s actually manipulate the brain to give you the feeling you think your having for the things they want to eat. You can have sugar cravings that you think are yours but it’s the gut bugs yanking your chain and manipulating you so that you can feed them, it’s a very cleaver evolutionary mechanism. They can also alter our emotional and motivational structure even causing reckless behavior.

Yeast infections also contribute to this problem but testing is not reliable. You can repopulate the good guys and stop feeding the bad guys and do supportive strategies, cultured vegetables help tremendously.

The mitochondria coax the energy out of the molecules the fuel that feeds the brain. Cells that have the most mitochondria use the most energy and these are the brain, heart and muscles. If you take a hit in your mitochondria these organs are going to take the hit first. A hit can be caused by toxic injury, EMF’s like wi-fi and cell towers and putting a cell phone up to your ear, keep it on speaker or somewhat away from your head.

Nutrients that help you keep up are CoQ10 and B vitamins, when their in short supply the mitochondria don’t work so well. What puts your mitochondria at risk is if their membranes are damaged. Damage occurs from free radicals that are formed from too much stress leading to neurodegenerative conditions that can progress. I recommend another book by Gar Taubes called Good Calories, Bad Calories.

A calorie is a unit of energy but for your body to use that energy it needs other vitamins and minerals and supports so that all of the chemical processes that your body has to go through to use that energy can truly work. When you eat a candy bar or a donut that’s low nutrient density all it is is the sugar or the starch that breaks down the sugar but not all the vitamins that grew with the sugar in the plant, fruit or vegetable. When you separate the sugar from everything else in the fruit and vegetable that gives you junk food. That calorie is deprived of all the other things you need and you get sick because your body evolved to have it all together. The processed food industry takes it and sells it to someone else for money and your not getting it.

If you try to live on sugar without the rest of it your going to get insulin resistant pre-diabetes. You should know brain atrophy, the loss of brain tissue starts when blood sugars are high but not anywhere near as high as you need to be diagnosed with diabetes. This is all explained very well in the book Grain Brain.

When your exposed to environmental toxins you take a bigger hit when your nutrient deficient.

The cutoff way we measure glucose levels in the U.S. is 120 for diabetes, anywhere from 90-120 we can see the brain atrophy in graphs and the hippocampus going down. 80% of the adults in the U.S. have fasting blood sugars of 90 or above, so we’re talking basically about a lot of us losing our minds because of sugar. This also causes macular degeneration with antioxidant deficiencies associated with it. The complexity of the eye needs a lot of nutritional support, we have individuality for what we need to keep these processes going we all need different levels of antioxidants. It depends on what state your in for what diet and nutrients you need. During the repair process you must be stricter, later you may be able to relax the diet.

Coconut oil has been found to be more anti-epileptic than Depakote and Valproic acid.

Autism diets are so self restrictive and sugar laden that there have been cases of them having scurvy because they often refuse fruits and vegetables and no one knows to give them cultured products. To have scurvy today is nuts! It’s hard to believe that people today could be that malnourished. If you only do one thing it should be cultured vegetables.

They even found with Parkinson’s disease who previously had colonoscopies with samples taken from their gut and you could see changes in the guts nervous system related to Parkinson’s years before the person was diagnosed with Parkinson’s symptoms in the brain, the gut had been taking a hit several years ahead of time. For cleaning the brain there are health practices and supplements, if someone doesn’t believe much in supplements do a good green smoothie. It gives you so many vitamins, minerals and nutrients that could be a really good simple place to start every day and cultured vegetables is a fantastic foundation for whatever else you do. Vitamin C and glutathione are very good, they help each other as the body uses vitamin C to make glutathione. One of my favorites n-acetylcysteine (Pharma Nac) this one comes in individual packets and retains more of it’s potency, the stuff in the jar tends to be not that good. It’s fizzy and fun and tastes pretty good, it’s the ingredient that’s most commonly deficient that get’s in the way of the body making the glutathione you need to keep that level up. The only problem would be is if you have yeast it could make that worse but once you get that under control you should be able to tolerate this.

Another one is broccoli sprouts or sulforaphane, there are a couple companies that have this that are of a higher potency that were given to children with Autism and the preliminary shows the kids improved a lot while they were on this broccoli extract supplement. They found that some were having problems with their vitamin D receptor and this sulforaphane opened up the receptor to accept the vitamin D. It supports mitochondrial function and glutathione synthesis. This is very powerful but eating a lot of cruciferous vegetables of broccoli, kale, cauliflower and collard greens and getting them into the green smoothies which you can spice up with berries and other things to make them palatable. Those are things I would advise anyone to do but more so if you have a history of chemical exposure as in the case with Parkinson’s from pollution or exposures from your job.

We push ourselves, drive ourselves nuts and give ourselves stress that is constant, exercise is known to reduce stress. Modern life disturbs our self regulation, stress increases stress hormones which increases inflammation it’s a vicious cycle. The more stressed you are the less you sleep, the less you sleep the more stressed you are. The less nutrients you have the less buffer zone you have between getting stressed and loving it, you can drive yourself crazy. First you need to control the things you can, this means adding all the supports by making every choice a healthy choice and eliminating the things like the toxins in your house and as much as you can. Many of these products have never been tested like skincare and household products that were never properly tested.

The more stressed out you are the more the gut gets kind of cramped up and doesn’t function very well. It doesn’t digest or process and function very well and that can contribute to a deterioration of the ecology of the gut bugs, gut lining, the health of the gut lining, the way the gut functions and your food absorption. Stress creates stress, it’s not just a word that describes psychological stress it’s a word that describes a burden on any system that’s greater than the system can withstand. That can be stress on a physical structure, it can be stress in your cells and in the way your muscles are strained, etc. You must minimize the demands of more than you can handle as much as possible, if your a woman stress can prevent you from becoming pregnant.

There is another woman that is working with Autistic children, adults and people with special needs Anat Baniel she can be found at She also has a find a doctor on her page.

We stress a whole approach and we are working on a movie called Canary Kids because so many children today have chronic illness they are the canaries in the coalmine. The numbers for Asthma, Diabetes, Obesity, Mood Disorders, Learning Disabilities as well as ADHD and Autism are all going up. These kids are showing us what the rest of us are vulnerable to but not quite as vulnerable as they are. We are designing a study to track two from each of those for 18 months as they recover while we design through a team of medical mentors individualized programs to really get them as close to better as possible. It’s not a cookbook off the shelf approach it’s a whole person approach.

We all know on the integrative side that this can all get better but the rest of the world doesn’t know from the scientific view, so tracking it as it happens which no one has done as the process is going on so we can publish papers on these.

When your working on a drug trial you may get 10-15% improvement but I have never seen any one drug or treatment recover, maybe on a fluky basis, but for the most part you have to do a variety of things and it’s a strategy to recover all the different levels of the system and that’s a different scientific methodology than studying one thing at a time. When they first started studying the microbiome they tried to figure out what gut bugs go with which disease and they gave that up and their talking about an ecosystem.

The moderator Donna Gates of this summit is an expert in treating Autism and having great success with a lot of great information on her page The Body Ecology Diet.

Dr. Herbert web page

This is a transcript of another interview she did for PBS here


Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

M. Scherker medical researcher


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