The rate of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has increased 78 percent in the last decade, with autism now affecting a staggering 1 in 88 children. While parents scramble for answers, researchers increasingly find a common denominator: inflammation affecting brain function.
While some children withstand the assaults of modern life relatively unscathed, the child with autism has neurologically-based reactions to foods, vaccines, viruses, environmental chemicals, or other immune triggers. Some studies show this imbalance in immune function can begin in the womb, often influenced by the mother’s health. The question, of course, is why.
Children born to moms with autoimmune disease more likely to develop autism
For starters, recent studies show that autoimmune diseases run in families, and children born to mothers with autoimmune diseases, such as celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis, are three times more likely to be born with autism. Researchers say the mother’s circulating autoimmune antibodies may create an abnormal immune environment that can affect the developing fetus.
Maternal obesity and diabetes raise autism risk
An autoimmune disease isn’t the only risk. Any kind of maternal immune imbalance can affect the immune health of the fetus. For instance, women who are obese are 67 percent more likely to have a child with autism. Women with diabetes are also more likely to give birth to a child with autism. Both obesity and diabetes keep the body in a state of chronic inflammation, which can affect the immune health of the developing fetus.
Leaky gut and fetal immune health
Another risk factor that can pass to the fetus is intestinal permeability, commonly referred to as leaky gut. Excess sugars and starches in the diet (i.e., gluten and junk foods) along with chronic stress can inflame the gut and cause the intestinal lining to become porous, or leaky. Because some 80 percent of the body’s immune system resides in the gut, a leaky gut triggers a cascade of inflammation that extends beyond the gut and into the brain and body, including the placenta of a pregnant woman.
Damaged gut walls will allow undigested foods, bacteria, and other pathogens to escape from the intestines into the bloodstream. These circulating pathogens affect the fetus by stimulating an immune response that may affect the development of the fetal brain.
Immune health affects the developing brain
Since we know the immune system affects the developing brain of the fetus, it’s important to approach conception and pregnancy with immune health in mind. This will not only reduce the risk of autism but also make the child less susceptible to other immune disorders, including asthma, eczema, food intolerances, allergies, and other brain developmental disorders (e.g., Tourette syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, ADD/ADHD, etc.)
You don’t HAVE an immune system; you ARE an immune system
Regulating immune health requires a whole-body approach that addresses diet, adrenal health, hormone health, gut health, food intolerances, and the autoimmunity of both parents—though the mother in particular. An anti-inflammatory diet is foundational to a healthy immune system. Studies have shown the effectiveness of a gluten-free and dairy-free diet or, more ideally, the immune balancing autoimmune diet. Not surprisingly, many children see symptoms of autism resolve through a similar whole-body approach.
Of course, most children born to a parent with an autoimmune disease do not get autism, however properly managing an autoimmune disease not only reduces the risk of autism, but also makes the pregnancy and postpartum period easier and more enjoyable.