Team GR: We know the microbiome is essential to a healthy life, but how does it impact those with autism? We asked Dr. Zach Bush to explain.
by Zach Bush, MD
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is the extraordinarily complicated and massive ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses that fill every nook of the planet, and the human body itself. The soil, water and the air harbor unique subsets of this extraordinary web of life.
The microbiome can interact with one another within a species, and across species with a variety of communication methods, including microRNA that affect the gene expression of nearby organisms, electrical pulsations, electrolyte (potassium for example) pulses, infrared emission, and peptide/protein production.
Why is it important?
The microbiome in our bodies and in the environment around us is the foundation of energy production, digestion, detoxification, and distribution of resources. In soil for example, bacteria, parasites, and fungi breakdown organic materials to liberate macronutrients like the fuels of carbohydrates and fat, or the building blocks of amino acids and proteins.
In addition, they process micronutrients into bioavailable resources such as the elements of selenium, calcium, etc. The mycelium within the soil is then able to function like a superhighway system, delivering needed nutrient resources to distant sites that are signaling a deficiency of said nutrient.
In this way, the birch tree typically grows in soils that are devoid of the critical, and unique, nutrients that are needed by the birch tree, but the birch seedling, and maturing tree thrive when near the correct evergreen species that, in the interaction with their unique microbiome, produce the needed nutrients and traffic these nutrients via the mycelium to the birch tree.
In the same way bacteria, fungi, and likely many parasites work within the human intestines to metabolize our food into macro and micronutrients, and deliver unique combinations of resources to different parts of our intestinal track that are responsible for absorption of different resources for the myriad of organ systems that make up the complex human body.
Are we losing microbiome due to the environment?
The advent of our modern farming and pharmaceutical systems has led to a massive destruction of the microbiome. Over the last 40 years, it is likely that we have lost more than 50% of the earth’s microbial diversity. We are certainly exposed to a lot of antibiotic from our doctors – more than 7 million pounds (not prescriptions, but pounds of antibiotics) are prescribed by our doctors in the US each year. This equates to 833 prescriptions per people in our country, annually.
This amazing amount then pales in comparison to the more than 30 million pounds of antibiotics used in our meat production system – delivered in the animal feed to the chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows that end up on our plates. All of this is a drop in the bucket compared to the most common weedkiller (herbicide) on the market – glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup and the majority of weedkillers on the market today).
This chemical that is sprayed on soils worldwide, and directly on our genetically-modified “Roundup ready” staple crops including corn, soy beans, sugar beets, etc., is patented as an antibiotic. It kills bacteria, fungi, and plants by blocking the ability of these lifeforms to produce the protein building blocks for health and survival.
More than 2 billion pounds of Roundup are applied to the soils each year. This water soluble chemical is then dispersed into our water system, affecting the rivers and oceans, and evaporating into the air we breathe and the rain that falls on us. We live on an antibiotic planet. The microbiome, plants, animals, and humans on the planet are suffering.
What does the microbiome have to do with autism?
Every parent of a child on the autism spectrum can attest to the chronic gut issues their child has faced, often predating the onset of the signs of neurologic injury and sensory processing deficits. Colic, indigestion, excess gassiness, foul smelling gas and stools, greasy or green stools, dietary intolerances, bloating, constipation cycles, slow gastric emptying, and the list goes on.
The link between the human brain and peripheral nervous system continues to become more and more multifaceted with each month of science. One such example: we now know that the microbiome is responsible for interacting with the enteric endocrine cells in the walls of the human intestines to produce 90% of the serotonin and nearly 50% of the dopamine in the human body. These are the primary neurotransmitters that regulate our sensory and autonomic nervous system.
Can improving the microbiome have a positive impact on the autistic child?
Absolutely, a large variety of studies and decades of clinical experience have demonstrated the power of diet to affect the microbiome, and improve the signs and symptoms of autism. The GAPS diet, bone broths, plant based diets devoid of dairy and meat proteins, gluten free diets, all have shown benefit.
The elimination of processed foods, chemical additives, artificial sweeteners are among the unifying features of all these diets that have been successfully implemented around the world.
In a recent study, without any change in nutrition, autistic children underwent 2 weeks of potent oral antibiotic therapy to radically decrease their bacterial ecosystem in the intestines, then they underwent fecal transplant from non-autistic individuals, effectively inducing a radical change in their gut microbiome. There was rapid clinical response noted in the subsequent weeks with better neurologic function in the treated autistic children.
Do probiotics create a healthy microbiome?
Unfortunately, probiotics are very limited in their capacity to affect the microbiome and human health. Brief attention to what a probiotic is reveals its limited capacity: a probiotic is typically composed of three to seven species of bacteria, but at very high numbers - the probiotic bottle likely touts 35 billion, or 50 billion CFU (colony forming units).
This is an amazing simplification of microbiome data. A healthy gut should have 20,000 to 40,000 species of bacteria, plus fungi and beyond. And yet, one of the only tools that have been handed to us for gut health are capsules of three to seven species.
If we take probiotics daily, we are overwhelmingly creating a very narrow spectrum of microbiome throughout the gut. Furthermore, the vast majority of the bacteria in probiotics are not grown from human gut microbiome, but from the microbiome of cows.
Cows have much different, non-acidic digestive tracks with much different species of bacteria, etc. I discourage my patients from using long term probiotics. If you are going to use them, then short duration – a week or two, would be the max recommended. If long-term maintenance is insisted on, then use them only a couple days a week, and change your brand/bacterial species content frequently.
How can we go beyond the probiotic?
Foods that undergo wild (air) fermentation are among the most ancient of gut health tools. Wild and live fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kavas, and kefirs gain much greater biodiversity than probiotics through the hundreds of species that are introduced to the fermenting crock from the ambient air environment.
The live culture products that can deliver living microbiome to your plate are found in the refrigerated section (not canned) of your natural foods store. Far cheaper and perhaps even more beneficial, is the home preparation of fermented foods.
Create a salt water brine, dump in shredded cabbage and other veggies per your preference, cover the crock with cheese cloth or towel, skim the surface of the water daily to remove any visible buildup, and then can and refrigerate until consumed. The longer you ferment the more interesting things get in taste and nutrient delivery. Try the kraut and one week vs five weeks.
Team GR: One way to create a healthy microbiome is with Restore, which is a liquid dietary supplement that promotes the natural health impact of a balanced microbiome on the human system.
How can we get back to the biodiversity that we need?
I encourage my patients to get far out into nature to seek the most ancient biomes they can interact with – start with gardening in the backyard, barefoot, with your hands in the dirt is best – then venture into the mountains, woods, beaches, jungles, deserts, and swamps of the world around us. Be adventurous. Like the wild fermented foods, you will collect microbiome from the air around you, adding to the diversity of the life within you.