Inflammation may just be the underlying root cause of autism. While no scientific consensus exists on this topic, one thing is clear. Inflammation is definitely playing a major role.
In this post, I am going to talk about:
- The link between inflammation and autism
- The main triggers of inflammation
- How food can keep the inflammatory fire burning
*Remember, I am not a doctor or scientist. I’m Simply a Dad sharing some of the research I found and knowledge I’ve gained. This article is not meant to be medical advice. It’s for informational purposes. Talk with your doctor if you think inflammation is an issue for you or your family.
Inflammation and Autism
What does inflammation have to do with autism?
We’re all familiar with acute inflammation. There’s a stimulus such as an injury, toxin, or infection. The immune system springs into action to rebuild, repair, or deal with the foreign invader.
Once the issue is dealt with, the immune system powers down and inflammation subsides. This is how it works and why a little inflammation is good.
We get into trouble when the immune system doesn’t power down, and inflammation continues to flare. Overtime, this is known as systemic or chronic inflammation, and it is at the root of almost every chronic health condition.
Depending on where this chronic inflammation settles determines what health issue you may experience. If it settles in the lungs, your child may end up with asthma.
In the skin, it might be acne or eczema. In the gut, your child will likely have GI issues like constipation, bloating, or even enterocolitis.
Inflammation In The Brain = Autism
When inflammation is concentrated in the brain, some kids may develop autism. I say develop autism because a lot of kids on the spectrum (not all) have what is known as regressive autism. This is where they appeared to lose certain skills or abilities around age 2.
Not all children will develop autism. Some kids might develop severe anxiety, depression, ADHD, brain fog, headaches…etc. However, left untreated, this inflammation would likely lead to more serious problems.
Scientific Link Between Inflammation & Autism
You may be thinking, “this sounds interesting, but is there actually any proof of a connection between brain inflammation and autism?” There is actually an increasing amount of evidence linking both immune dysregulation and inflammation to autism.
Postmortem studies have analyzed the brains of both kids and adults with autism and compared it to a control group. Tissue samples revealed elevated cytokine levels (inflammatory molecules) and increased microglial activation (immune cells of the brain) in the brains of ASD.
Another study looked at the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of living children on the spectrum. Researchers here also found significantly higher levels of cytokines.
Blood and urine samples have also revealed higher inflammatory markers than control groups in various other studies as well.
This is just a sample of the research that links neuroinflammation and autism. However, there are many more studies that also connect immune dysregulation, inflammation and autism.
If you’re still not convinced or you want to take a deeper dive, see the various articles & studies in the references at the end of this article.
With all this research establishing a clear link between inflammation and autism, why hasn’t the scientific community established it as being the cause of autism?
Current research shows a link between inflammation and autism, but researchers do not know if the inflammation is causal. Did inflammation come first, was it responding to other stimuli, or was the neuroinflammation there to protect the brain?
It’s too early to definitively answer those questions. More research needs to be done, and many of the current studies have flaws, most notably, very small sample sizes.
Before any major research or medical group would make this claim, they would need to see multiple large, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies that conclusively show inflammation as the cause.
But then, a new question would arise: What caused the inflammation in the first place?
What Causes Inflammation
There are numerous things in our environment that can trigger inflammation. It remains to be seen which of these triggers are the most likely source behind the neuroinflammation in the brains of people with ASD.
There likely isn’t one single trigger that leads to an inflamed brain and autism. There are plenty of potential environmental and biochemical factors that could lead to neuroinflammation. What leads to autism in one child may be different from another.
It’s more than likely that there is no single trigger for any child. In my opinion, there is a cascade of events/triggers that create the perfect storm that leads to autism.
It’s nearly impossible for researchers to construct a study that will give us a definitive answer, which may be why we have yet to determine a single cause of autism. However, researchers have linked various sources of inflammation to autism.
Some of the possible triggers that have been suggested and/or studied include:
- Microbes/Infections (virus, bacteria, fungi, mold, parasites)
- Air Pollution & Toxins (heavy metals, flame retardants, PFAS, TCEs..etc)
- GMOs, Glyphosate, & Other Pesticides
- Maternal Inflammation During Pregnancy
- Drugs/Medicine (Acetaminophen, Valproate, Pitocin..etc)
- Certain Foods & Ingredients In Food
One More Trigger
One more thing I should mention that I left off the list above is the ”Big V Word” (you know the routine shots given to kids a regular intervals by their pediatricians)
**I am saying the “Big V word” because I don’t want to say the actual word as not to get penalized and/or censored by the giant company that rhymes with Zoogle.**
Regardless of where you stand with the “Big V word”, any article on inflammation and autism must also mention these as potential inflammatory triggers.
Articles that fail to mention or outright claim the “Big V” is completely unrelated, may not be objective. I understand the general scientific consensus is that there is no link. However, if there is a link between inflammation & autism, and we do not know the source or reason for that inflammation, then we can’t rule out anything.
They are made to produce a heightened immune response. It’s how they make us immune to the disease we are being inoculated against. We must admit that they cause inflammation. It’s how they are designed.
What Do We Know?
Many of these triggers have been studied and many of those studies find a potential link to autism and these triggers. But again, they all recommend further study and evaluation before drawing scientific conclusions.
At the very least, we know that there is likely a strong link between inflammation and autism. We also know many of our children with autism often have a dysregulated immune system, and a heightened immune response.
Unfortunately, a scientific consensus is likely years maybe even decades away.
We parents cannot wait for a consensus to come, so what is it that we can do now with the information we have today?
What Can Parents Do?
Functional medicine and naturopathic doctors are already moving forward with treating inflammation in their patients with autism. My first recommendation for parents would be to find one of these professionals to help guide your child’s treatment. (check the links at the end for help finding a doctor)
These doctors will work to identify the source of inflammation for your child. They’ll look for signs of a toxic overload, allergies, food sensitivities, chronic infections…etc.
In the meantime, it’s important that parents do their part by removing and reducing triggers wherever we can. Start by clearing your home of potential sources of inflammation.
Reduce Inflammatory Triggers In The Home:
- Get rid of chemical fragrances and cleaners in your home.
- Opt for natural body care products (soaps, shampoos, lotions…etc)
- Drink clean, filtered water
- Gradually replace nonstick cookware (stainless steel, cast iron, glass)
- Dust & Vacuum regularly (microbes, toxins, and mold spores can live on dust)
- Turn off WiFi at night
Best Thing Parents Can Do To Help Inflammation & Autism:
Eliminate Inflammatory Foods
As parents, one of the best things we can do to reduce inflammation is to change our family’s diet. This may have the greatest impact on their health because it’s what we have the most control over.
Our kids eat 3-6 times a day, so that is 3-6 opportunities to either spark inflammation or soothe it. Food can either help or hurt the body. Knowing which foods to avoid can make a huge difference in our children’s health.
Unfortunately, the majority of the food at the grocery store is inflammatory. If I made a list of everything to avoid, it would have hundreds of different foods. A better idea is to look at groups of foods and ingredients to keep to a minimum or eliminate completely.
Food Linked To Inflammation
There are specific foods/ingredients that have been shown to be inflammatory, and our best bet is to remove them completely from your family’s diet.
Below, you will find a list of the top 10 foods to avoid. I also included a brief explanation on why each of these foods are problematic and likely sources of inflammation.
Top 10 Foods/Ingredients Linked To Inflammation and Autism
- Artificial colors/flavors
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Vegetable/Seed Oils
**For a deeper dive into these 10 foods, check out this post: 10 Foods That Cause Inflammation and Make Behaviors Worse**
Gluten & Dairy
Gluten & dairy have been linked to inflammation and autism for decades now. Kids with autism have shown elevated levels of antibodies against gluten and casein (a dairy protein). This means that the immune response is attacking gluten and dairy the same way it would an infection.
Essentially, gluten & casein (dairy) are triggering inflammation in people who create these antibodies.
Gluten and dairy are also problematic because they are known to cause leaky gut, increase intestinal inflammation, slow transit time (ie constipation), and are notoriously contaminated by mold toxins.
On a personal note, my wife’s lifelong athma essentially went away after she gave up dairy. She went from needing an inhaler every day of her life to not using one at all. Pretty remarkable!
I am a firm believer in a GFCF Diet. (gluten-free, casein-free), and I recommend all autism parents start here.
In fact, a big reason why I started this blog was to help other parents learn how to do GFCF and to take away the overwhelm that comes with completely changing your family’s diet. (read more on the GFCF Diet here)
Soy has many of the same effects as gluten and casein (dairy), but it also has some other issues as well. Soy is highly allergenic, may inhibit thyroid function, and is high in omega 6 fats, lectins, & antinutrients.
One of the biggest concerns with soy is its estrogenic content (phytoestrogen). The estrogen-like compounds in soy can interfere with normal estrogen in the body. This can lead to hormone imbalance and may even increase cancer risk.
Soy has also been linked to increased seizure rates and soy-based infant formula has been linked to autism as well.
Sugar has long been linked to inflammation for a long time now. High sugar intake can lead to unstable blood-sugar which can lead to behavioral issues in kids with autism. Over time, unstable blood sugar and high sugar consumption can lead to insulin resistance.
Sugar has been found to weaken the immune response to infections for several hours after eating, it can also trigger leaky gut and feed bad microbes in the gut. All of which lead to even more inflammation.
GMOs & Glyphosate
Where to start with GMOs & glyphosate? We’re hearing more and more about the deleterious effects glyphosate has on our health.
Research has implicated glyphosate (and other pesticides) in causing oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and it’s likely playing a role in causing autism. Several studies show that infant exposure leads to a significantly higher chance of developing autism.
Glyphosate was actually patented as an antibiotic & antimicrobial years ago, so its effect on microbes are well known. This impacts our health because there are trillions of microbes living in our bodies, and they play a major role in maintaining our health and more importantly, modulating the immune system.
Eating GMOs and other glyphosate-contaminated foods are having a detrimental effect on our gut health. Children with autism have various medical issues surrounding gut health, digestion, and other gastrointestinal conditions.
This is just a small sample of the effects glyphosate and GMOs are having on our health, but it clearly demonstrates the benefit of removing these foods from your family’s diet.
Artificial Colors & Flavors
Artificial ingredients have long been associated with problem behaviors & hyperactivity in children. However, these ingredients may drive even bigger health effects and inflammation. Artificial colors and flavors have also been linked to cancer, birth defects, organ damage, hypersensitivity or allergy-like reactions (ie inflammation), and are generally toxic to everyone.
There are a host of sugar free sweeteners in foods today (Splenda, NutraSweet, Sweet N Low…etc). Many of them have already been linked to moderate health issues like migraines, mood changes, and vomiting, which are also signs of inflammation.
However, artificial sweeteners are implicated in more serious conditions ranging from nutrient deficiencies, anemia, depressed growth, seizures, and cancer.
Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) is a known excitotoxin. Excitotoxins are compounds that “excite” a neuron or brain cell, and it has the potential to excite the cell to its death. Excitotoxins are linked to neuroinflammation, and the interaction between inflammatory molecules and excitotoxins may actually cause brain changes similar to that in a person with autism.
MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)
One of the most potent excitotoxins that requires a special mention is MSG, also known as free glutamate. It requires special attention because it’s well known that the autism population has a dysfunction in regulating glutamate. This leads to way too much of the excitatory glutamate in the brain.
When kids with autism eat foods high in excitotoxins, they may exhibit symptoms such as hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, self-injurious behaviors, change or increase in stimming behaviors, and be unable to sleep well.
Preservatives, like BHT, BHA, & TBHQ, to name a few, are also linked to autism and inflammation. Sodium benzoate was found to cause an increase in hyperactivity, which is a common challenge for kids on the spectrum.
A 2019 study, linked the rise in autism to the preservative propionic acid. This study demonstrated the preservatives ability to trigger neuroinflammation, disrupt the ability of neurons to communicate, and it’s potential to cause mitochondrial dysfunction also common in the autism population.
Even before this study, thousands of parents are turning to a popular alternative treatment for autism called The Nemechek Protocol. The main goal of this protocol is control propionic acid, and many parents are noticing remarkable results with it.
One last note on artificial ingredients
Renowned autism nutrition, Julie Matthews writes in her book, Nourishing Hope For Autism,
“I would strongly urge you to remove artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives from the entire family’s diet. They are completely unnecessary, toxic to everyone (in varying degrees), and add further burden to already stressed livers. ~Julie Matthews
Vegetable & Industrial Seed Oils
Old thinking was that these types of oils offered a heart healthy fat, but research today is clearly showing a link between inflammation and vegetable (corn, soy) and industrial seed oils (like cottonseed, safflower, canola).
These oils are unstable, oxidized (damaged) and harmful solvents like hexane are used to extract the oils from the plant/seeds. Because the oils are oxidized and unstable, manufactures have to add preservatives, like the ones mentioned above, to stabilize them and extend their shelf life.
The most obvious reason not to give these oils to your family is the high amount of omega 6 fatty acids.
We all know that the omega 3 fats (from fish and grass fed animals) are anti inflammatory and great for the brain. Omega 6s block the body’s ability to use the healthier omega 3s, and they are highly inflammatory.
Fat is critical to a child’s rapidly developing brain and body. They even need some omega 6s, but from stable unoxidized sources like soaked or sprouted nuts and seeds.
For more on how industrial oils are driving inflammation, I refer you to an in-depth article written by Chris Kresser.
How Do I Know If My Child Is Inflamed?
Based on the research, if you have a child with autism, then they likely have some type of inflammation going on. It may be more concentrated in the brain, the gut, or more likely both.
Below is a list of common symptoms and signs of inflammation that kids with autism exhibit. Keep in mind, this is not an exhaustive list. If there are any chronic physical or mental health symptoms, there is most likely inflammation.
Common Symptoms Of Inflammation In Kids With Autism
- Mood swings
- Brain Fog/Inattentiveness
- Sleep Issues
- Sores or Swelling
- Frequent Unexplained Rashes
- GI Disturbances
As parents, we cannot wait for a scientific consensus. There is a clear connection between inflammation and autism, so find a forward-thinking doctor to help you identify their triggers and treat your child’s inflammation.
In the meantime, we parents must reduce inflammatory triggers wherever we can. Start by clearing potentially toxic and inflammatory chemicals at home.
Parents have the most control over their family’s diet and thus the biggest impact on inflammation and autism can be made by eliminating inflammatory foods.
The right diet provides the foundation for any future progress and healing for our kids. If we want them to feel better and become the best they can be, then we have to feed them the right foods.
I recommend everyone start with a simple GFCF Diet (gluten-free, casein-free: A.K.A. gluten-free, dairy-free diet). If you need help on how to do this, click here to see my articles on GFCF, or feel free to reach out to me. I am happy to help.
Help With A Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Diet
Find A Qualified Doctor
- Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs
- Institute For Functional Medicine
- How To Choose A Good Integrative or Functional Medicine Doctor
Neuroinflammation & Autism
PFAS (non stick chemical)
Review of research related to inflammation and autism
Foods that cause inflammation
GMOs, Glyphosate, Pesticides: Inflammation & Autism
Sugar & Inflammation
Artificial Ingredients & Preservatives In Food
Glutamate & Autism