Autism, Anxiety & Adrenal Glands

Anxiety is common among individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Anxiety is normal in small amounts, or during specific events such as exams or starting a new job. However, when the feelings of worry, nervousness, apprehension or uneasiness are strong enough and often enough to prevent an enjoyment of life, or to cause a person to avoid many situations, then that anxiety has become a big problem. If anxiety is also occurring with other symptoms such as on-going fatigue, sluggishness, insomnia, cloudy thinking, difficulty remembering, craving sugar and salt, depression, and others, then there is a good chance that a person could be suffering from poor adrenal function, sometimes called adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion. These are just shorthand terms to indicate that the adrenal glands, crucial to good health, are not functioning properly.

The adrenal glands are part of our endocrine system. These two glands, the size of grapes and located on top of our kidneys, are responsible for over 50 hormones, among them adrenaline and cortisol. In a stressful situation, our bodies release adrenaline to try to deal with the stress. Thousands of years ago, the stressful situation would have been something like seeing a predator. Nowadays, our stressful situations are very different, and might be something more like having to meet new people. Clearly, adrenaline is a good response to threat from a predator (this fight or flight response will help you survive), but not a good response to our modern day stressors. However, to our bodies, the perceived threat and its response to it is exactly the same. After adrenaline is released, the adrenal glands release cortisol. Adrenaline doesn’t last long, but cortisol does. If you perceive continual stress, the adrenals will continue to release cortisol. We are supposed to release cortisol, at naturally fluctuating levels, throughout the day to maintain our health. However, if we are releasing too much of it too often, the adrenal glands will eventually not be able to release sufficient cortisol, which will cause other health problems.

So, anxiety and other stress-related problems are not just in our heads. They are intricately related to a complex system in our body called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA or HTPA) axis. This involves our hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenal glands, and controls our reactions to stress. But also controls many other aspects of our health such as digestion, immune system, energy levels, sexuality, moods and emotions.  If one part of this axis, such as the adrenal glands, is overworked, then the whole system can start malfunctioning. Although anxiety has long been viewed as a purely psychological issue, remedied only by removing environmental stressors and counseling, it is very much a physical issue which has physical effects and causes that need to be addressed.

Histamine and other things involved in allergy and sensitivity reactions also affect functioning of adrenal glands – see this excellent video interview with Dr Theoharides who authored the paper titled “Allergic Symptoms” in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. More than Meets the Eye?”. There is now good reason to believe that individuals with autism produce a lot more histamine and other inflammatory chemicals in their bodies. Histamine is the chemical (neurotransmitter) your body produces when you’re having an allergic reaction – whether a true allergy or a `sensitivity’ reaction. Some of the symptoms that show up when you are sensitive to foods or things from the environment can be skin reactions (blotches, eczema, acne), irritable bowel, constipation, bloating, dizziness, panic attacks, compulsive tendencies, depression and headaches, irregular sleep/insomnia all very common in autism. Our adrenal glands produce adrenaline in order to block histamine, in individuals who are sensitive to surroundings their adrenals will be working overtime. In addition to this, all the adrenaline produced this way will make a person feel more anxious, fearful and impulsive, even sometimes more aggressive.

There are ways to help adrenal glands that no longer work optimally and improve your physical and mental health as a result. Some of these ways seem quite easy, such as getting more sleep (not simple if one of your symptoms is insomnia or unrestful sleep). If your symptoms are more than just mild, it may take some time and effort to turn things around. We at, Treating Autism, believe in biomedical approaches to addressing these and other health problems underlying the surface symptoms of autism – treating the body in ways that help it recover to a state of health. You can read more about us at TreatingAutism.co.uk

Further reading

You can read more about adrenal gland problems and possible ways to address them at:
http://www.nutritionj.com/content/9/1/42
http://www.raysahelian.com/anxiety.html
http://www.drlera.com/anxiety_disorders.htm

More about Dr Theoharides research into mast cell activation and histamine/allergic issues in autism: http://www.mastcellmaster.com/

Abnormal fear conditioning in autism spectrum disorders:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21905243

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