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Autism and the Endocrine Response

Autism has long been deemed a medical mystery. Conventional medicine has sought to treat the symptoms of the disorder; can naturopathic medicine treat the cause?

By Jared M. Skowron, ND

Autism currently is a worldwide epidemic, with approximately one in 100 children affected. The most successful treatments are naturopathic, focused on treating the cause and acknowledging every part of the body. In this three-part series on autism, I will discuss the pathophysiology, connections and treatments for the endocrine, nervous and gastrointestinal systems.

Starting at the root of this disease, we can see how the branches and leaves of autism stem into all parts of the body. Beginning with toxic deposition of heavy metals or other chemicals, the body reacts to remove the offenders. The deeper the toxins are in the tissue, the stronger the reaction of the young body. Inflammation, altered immune response from vaccinations, altered endocrine response, increased action potentials of the nervous system, increased sympathetic tone and gut inflammation are all homeodynamic responses to removing the toxins buried deep within the tissue.

The role of the naturopathic doctor is to detoxify the body, removing the cause of disease and balancing the homeostatic response to improve the quality of life for the entire family.

Thyroid

As the body's stress response to toxins increases, endocrine production adjusts. In children with autism, melatonin production is decreased and its circadian rhythm altered.1 Serotonin, melatonin's precursor, also is low, contributing to this dysregulation. While melatonin is abnormal, the entire cascade of hormones which follow are equally out of sync.

Hypothalamic-pituitary dysfunction is the next to follow. The pituitary TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels are very unresponsive to hypothalamic stimulus of TRH (thyrotropin-releasing hormone).2 Combined with mineral deficiencies - 45 percent lower iodine levels in autistic children, 38 percent lower chromium levels in autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) children with pica and more than 66 percent lower potassium levels in ASD children with low muscle tone - one easily can see how thyroid response is inconsistent.3 These abnormal and inconsistent blood levels of thyroid hormone will affect neurological growth, as well as speech, language and other social trainings.

Conversely, hypothyroid does not cause autism. Children with ASD who were given thyroid hormone for six months developed hyperthyroidism and had no beneficial change in symptoms.4 Areas of the country with large amounts of perchlorate, a known thyrotropic agent, have increased amounts of hypothyroidism; the perchlorate interferes with normal thyroid hormone production. There are no significant increases in the percentage of children with autism in these areas with increased perchlorate in the water system.5,6

The process of thyroid imbalance is unidirectional. Children with ASD have imbalanced melatonin, H-P axis and, therefore, thyroid hormones. Thyroid testing should be used as a monitor for treatment, and a portion of the therapy needs to be supplementing the extreme deficiency in certain minerals, giving the bodies the tools needed to heal itself. In any mineral screen, always include lithium levels, for both child and mother (30 percent, 56 percent lower, respectively). Clinically, I find the more aggressive children have a stronger lithium deficiency. Iodine, selenium, zinc, copper, potassium and magnesium levels also are essential and should be supplemented if deficient.

Adrenal

Paralleling the thyroid imbalance is an extreme adrenal dysregulation. ACTH (adrenocorticotropin hormone) production is significantly higher in children with autism.7 Cortisol production, while lower in amounts, is extremely pulsatile, with hypersecretions throughout the day during environmental stressors.8

Cortisol rhythm is extremely out of sync in children with ASD, due to imbalanced melatonin and ACTH production. The more severe the autism, the more abnormal the diurnal rhythms.9 The need for cortisol is so great however, that cortisol suppression is resistant to dexamethasone-suppression testing.10 While there is a huge cortisol dysregulation, DHEA-S and testosterone seem to be similar in children with autism and those without.11

Clinically, hypersensitivities and insomnia, two common symptoms of ASD, have a large connection to the adrenal and nervous systems. Diurnal cortisol testing can aid treatments, and also be used in monitoring adrenal restoration. Melatonin use for insomnia can be very effective, especially when concurrent with a serotonin and zinc deficiency. Creating a consistent exogenous melatonin stimulus for the H-P axis also is beneficial for rebalancing circadian cortisol rhythms. Holy Basil (Ocinum sanctae) is an herb I use with great success to balance cortisol spikes.

Individualization

Each child with autism is unique. In the future, we will see more detailed diagnoses with ASD, depending on the individual's physiological response to toxins. As naturopaths, our testing and individualized treatments set us far and above conventional treatments for autism. Your testing must include:

  • Heavy metal testing
  • Mineral screen
  • Vitamin screen
  • Food allergy IgG
  • Endocrine testing
  • Gut microbiology/candida

These results will guide your treatments. However, the following five areas must be addressed:

  • Detoxification
  • Endocrine balancing
  • Gut rejuvenation
  • Nervous system calming
  • Vitamin/Mineral replenishing

Autism is completely treatable, and you will be amazed at how children can awaken and mainstream. When you help a child, it has innumerable effects on their family, as well as providing a future for them - a future they would never have had the opportunity to explore without this help. Part two of this discussion on autism will explore the adaptations of the young nervous system in autism.

References

  1. J Autism Dev Disord. 1995 Dec;25(6):641-654.
  2. Dev Med Child Neurol. 1991 Apr;33(4):313-319.
  3. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2006 Jun;110(3):193-209.
  4. J Autism Child Schizophr. 1978 Dec;8(4):383-387.
  5. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2004 Apr 23-May 28;67(8-10):835-844.
  6. Birth Defects Res A Clin Mol Teratol. 2003 Oct;67(10):886-892.
  7. J Autism Dev Disord. 2003 Aug;33(4):443-448.
  8. J Autism Dev Disord. 1992 Sep;22(3):433-447.
  9. Jpn J Psychiatry Neurol. 1987 Jun;41(2):227-235.
  10. J Autism Dev Disord. 1992 Sep;22(3):433-447.
  11. J Autism Dev Disord. 1995 Jun;25(3):295-304.

About the Author: Jared M. Skowron, ND, is in private practice in Hamden, Conn., where he specializes in pediatrics and successfully treating children on the spectrum. A graduate of NCNM, he is the senior naturopathic physician with Metabolic Maintenance and has formulated a vitamin/mineral/amino supplement therapy for autism, currently undergoing clinical trials. Dr. Skowron also is an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport, teaching pediatrics, CPD and EENT.



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Date Last Modified - Friday, 17-Oct-2008 12:10:52 PDT