Leaky gut syndrome is a proposed contributor to the symptoms of neurobehavioral disorders such as autism, sensory processing disorder, learning disorders and ADHD. For decades, “leaky gut syndrome” was not accepted as a medical diagnosis. But research now shows it is indeed real.
In 2012 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a supplement in their November issue of Pediatrics, “Gastrointestinal Conditions in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Developing a Research Agenda” revealing that “clinical practice and research to date indicate the important role of GI conditions in ASDs and their impact on children as well as their parents and clinicians” and that the current evidence warrants further research into this area. In this supplement, the AAP makes mention of intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and shows support for the importance of proper nutrition in children with neurobehavioral disorders like autism, stating that, “nutritional status and nutrient intake are inextricably related in children with autism.”
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut occurs when undigested food particles, germs and toxins seep into the bloodstream via a damaged bowel lining and elicit an immune response that can lead to physical symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, cramps and bloating. These symptoms, along with the chemicals produced as part of the immune response, may contribute to learning and behavioral difficulties. Leaky gut syndrome may also put children at increased risk for food sensitivities and vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can further exacerbate neurobehavioral problems.
Research in Support of Leaky Gut Syndrome
It is widely accepted that people with conditions such as Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis and type 1 diabetes often experience leaky gut syndrome. However, a clear link between leaky gut and ADHD has yet to be established. Research conducted by Nylund et al. in 2013 and published online in the journal “Pediatrics” provides evidence to support the theory that leaky gut syndrome may contribute to ADHD symptoms. The study of more than 742,000 children found that children with ADHD are significantly more likely to have constipation and bowel incontinence than children without the condition.
Research conducted by Hsiao et al. in 2013 and published in the journal “Cell” adds to mounting evidence that leaky gut syndrome and neurobehavioral disorders may be linked. The study investigating leaky gut and autism found that mice bred to display autism-like behaviors showed reduced symptoms following treatment with an experimental probiotic therapy.
According to Nylund et al., the link between bowel problems and neurobehavioral disorders could have several causes. The hallmark symptoms of many of these disorders — impulsivity, forgetfulness and inattentiveness — may lead to a tendency to overlook bodily cues. Repeated suppression of the urge to defecate can cause chronic constipation, which can progress to bowel incontinence if left untreated.
Effects of a Leaky Gut
Most parents don’t recognize the detrimental effect that a poor diet and resulting leaky gut has on the developing brain, especially in children who already have a functional disconnection. It can impact everything from behavior, cognitive or academic achievement, sensory processing, gross and fine motor skills equilibrium, an erratic immune system and normal everyday body functions, such as digestion and elimination. Kids with leaky gut syndrome may also experience vitamin and mineral deficiencies due to poor absorption, which can further exacerbate learning or behavioral struggles.
Tips for Supporting Improved Gut Health
If your child exhibits symptoms of a neurobehavioral disorder and experiences bowel problems related to a leaky gut, it is important to take action early. Eliminating common inflammatory ingredients like sugar, gluten and dairy products can go a long way to optimizing gut health to reduce or even eliminate symptoms. A high quality probiotic and digestive enzyme supplement can also be beneficial to promote healing if you suspect your child is suffering from leaky gut syndrome.
However, since imbalances in the brain cause imbalances in the immune system and in the autonomic system which ultimately leads to leaky gut, food sensitivities and autoimmunity, it’s important to fix the root issue – the brain. This is a unique perspective but it is very well founded in science. If the brain imbalance is not addressed as the primary cause, gut issues will persist long term. However if you balance the brain, you can eliminate food sensitivities, leaky gut and immune issues for good and you and your children can avoid lifelong dependence on special vitamins and diets.
Dr. Melillo’s upcoming book on diet and nutrition is intended to help kids and families with special needs to better understand how diet can influence brain health and the importance of clean eating for children who exhibit symptoms of a neurobehavioral disorder.
This book will feature other authors, such as Grammy Award winner Zac Brown as well as other well-known chefs and authors, who will provide unique insight and recipes. A highly recommended read for all families, “The Disconnected Kids Nutrition Plan” is on schedule to be released in April 2016!