By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 30 March 2012)
Probiotics are helpful bacteria (gut flora) that live in our digestive systems. According to Dr. Kurt Woeller (2009), these beneficial microorganisms serve a number of useful functions, including:
- Helping to break down and effectively use various nutrients
- Protecting against harmful bacteria and yeast in the intestines
- Assisting immune function
- Helping to reduce sensitivities/allergic reactions to various foods
- Improving the overall acid/alkaline balance in the intestines
Research Supporting the Use of Probiotics for Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome
The use of probiotics as an autism treatment is premised on the belief that autism is at least partially caused by dysfunction of the digestive tract. According to Morris (2008), one theory of autism holds that excessive growth of Candida albicans (a type of yeast) in the digestive tract causes or at least exacerbates problem behaviours such as irritability, hyperactivity, lethargy, confusion, attentional difficulties, and aggression (probiotics inhibit the growth of Candida). Morris notes that support for this theory comes from the research of Dr. William Shaw, who found that anti-fungal treatment reduced self-stimulatory behaviour and hyperactivity and increased concentration, vocalization, and eye contact in some autistic children.
Dr. Campbell-McBride (n.d.) asserts that autistic children tend to be deficient in probiotics. She notes that there are a variety of things that can adversely impact gut flora, including:
- Consumption of processed foods and soft drinks (refined sugars and refined grain products)
- Artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives
- Chlorinated water
While this list of potential probiotic killers suggests that probiotic supplements may be helpful, it also emphasizes the importance of diet, stress reduction, and other factors for maintaining a healthy digestive system.
There have been many anecdotal reports of improvement among autistic children taking probiotic supplements. However, a review of the literature indicates that there is a need for rigorously controlled studies to prove the efficacy of this intervention.
Natural Ways to Increase Probiotics
The growth and maintenance of probiotics can be supported naturally by consuming prebiotics. Prebiotic foods include oats, wheat, barley, and soybeans (Revathy et al., 2011). Probiotic health claims have been made for fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut, though their beneficial effects remain unproven (Morris, 2008).
According to Probiotic.org (2009), a website overseen by a qualified medical editor, you should exercise caution when starting probiotics, particularly if giving them to children. If not introduced slowly, with appropriate dosing, the risk of side effects such as bloating, gas, and abdominal pain rises. Also, many products are made for adults, and quality may vary significantly from one product to the next. If you are considering purchasing probiotic supplements, doing some research into the company’s reputation beforehand is a good idea.
Other Autism Supplements
For more on the effectiveness of other supplements for treating autistic spectrum disorders, see the main Autism Supplements page. For a full list of articles on autism and Asperger’s syndrome, visit the main Autistic Spectrum Disorders page.
Always consult a qualified medical practitioner before taking supplements or giving them to your child. Many supplements are toxic at certain doses and may interact with some medications or create problems for people with certain medical conditions.
This article is not intended as a substitute for medical consultation or care. Health concerns should be referred to a doctor.
- Campbell-McBride, N., Dr. (n.d.). “The Use of Probiotics for Children with Autism.” DietarySupport.com.
- Kurt Woeller, Dr. (8 June 2009). “Probiotics – Growth Promoting Factors.” DrKurtWoeller.blogspot.com.
- Morris, B.K. (2008). “Probiotic Diet as an Intervention.” Autism-Help.org.
Probiotic.org. (2009). “Probiotics Side Effects.”
- Revathy, T.; Mythili, S.; & Sathiavelu, A. (2011). “Assessing the Growth of Probiotic Bacteria in Selected Prebiotic Foods Rich in Oligosaccharides.” International Journal of Applied Biology and Pharmaceutical Technology, 2(1), pp. 483-487.