Autism And Adrenal Stress

Being in constant “fight or flight” mode takes a toll…

You don’t need me to tell you that an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) places not only the individual but also the parents, siblings and whole family under enormous stress. The body responds by initiating the adrenal glands’ “fight or flight” response, releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). This causes the body to react rapidly, and if it’s constant, it can lead to adrenal stress.

In my nutritional clinic, I oversee more than 780 children diagnosed with autism, and I have yet to find a single child who, on testing, does not have adrenal stress and in many cases exhaustion. Their parents tell me how their lives are also pressurized and how they are experiencing significant anxiety. It is my opinion that this is a condition that is universally affecting these individuals and families and one that warrants close investigation and appropriate support.

System-Wide Implications

Adrenal hormones affect the function of every tissue, organ and gland in the body. Excesses or deficiencies can lead to symptoms that are common in parents of children with autism and our children. For example, excess cortisol can lead to Cushing’s syndrome, with symptoms such as easy bruising, loss of muscle mass, depression, irregular periods, poor bone growth and repair and abnormal thyroid function. Conversely, a reduced level of cortisol may lead to Addison’s disease, with symptoms of low energy, joint pains, difficulty waking in the morning, weight loss, and diarrhea and electrolyte deficiencies.

Aldosterone is the salt retaining hormone. Deficiencies lead to low blood pressure, a high resting pulse and the desire to eat salt. Many mothers of children with autism tell me they crave salt and salty food, and they’re always puzzled by it. My son Billy has a massive salt craving, as does my wife Polly, who also has low blood pressure and dizziness on standing. These symptoms are common with aldosterone deficiency, as this increases sodium loss via the kidneys; thereby reducing blood volume, with the potential to cause a deficiency in blood flow and the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain.

Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue affects every organ and system in the body (and, accordingly, your whole life). It occurs when the adrenal glands simply can’t meet the demands of stress, whether physical, emotional, psychological or biochemical and its optimal production of regulatory hormones becomes unsustainable.

Imagine driving down a busy road at night: the traffic is heavy, it’s raining, the children are screaming in the car and you’re in a hurry to get home. Your pupils dilate, your body starts to sweat, your heart races, you become overly sensitive to the noise, the flashing street lights seem like strobe lighting and you’re close to blowing a fuse. This is a stress response—your body system is ready to fight or flee.

Testing for adrenal insufficiency is problematic under the age of 14 years, and reference levels of salivary cortisol and DHEA are inaccurate. A test that is free and easy is the adrenal papillary test. To do this you should shine a dim torch light into your child’s pupil in a darkened room for 20 seconds and observe. The pupil should constrict and remain constricted for the full 20-second period. If the pupil fluctuates in size (i.e. bigger then smaller) this suggests there may be adrenal insufficiency that requires support. Look out for these common symptoms too:

  • Physical exhaustion and fatigue, notably morning fatigue and difficulty waking; afternoon fatigue with an early evening boost of energy; and difficulty falling asleep.
  • Dizziness/ light headedness on standing.
  • Salt cravings or sweet cravings—for example, a need for sweet snacks, especially first thing in the morning.
  • Chemical intolerances and environmental sensitivities that may manifest as an increase in allergies and eczema.
  • Frequent illnesses, including stomach/gut problems and diarrhea; you also may notice swollen lymph glands.
  • Heightened sensitivities to stimuli, hyperactivity, stimming and OCD.
  • Poor skin condition—you may notice stretch marks, your child may bruise easily, and wounds may be slow to heal.

Heightened Stress And ASD Families

Coping and living with autism brings associated and additional stress. Your child may be crying for no apparent reason, and he or she may not be able to communicate—meaning that you often have to guess. A child with autism also may present many other issues, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), stimming and repetitive behaviors, bowel issues and difficulty with potty training, heightened sensitivities to their environment leading to problems coping with change, noise, lights, people and general chaos. They may be picky eaters, may not engage socially, may scream or laugh for no apparent reason.

These are additional concerns and stressors with which we all must deal, and the heightened stress and anxiety that results leads to adrenal insufficiency and even exhaustion. But it doesn’t affect just parents—it affects our children too. For example, a child who has poor verbal communication but an ability to understand is bound to have heightened frustration and stress. A child who lives in pain but is unable to ask for help must have heightened physical stress. A child who wants something but cannot ask for it will have increased stress. A child who finds sensory issues like bright lights and loud sounds a challenge will have heightened stress.

A child with these sensitivities may become more isolated as an adrenal “flight” response is initiated in order to shut out stressors. He may not respond to his name or commands, or may exhibit stereotypical behaviors and stimming in order to relax. A child who refuses to comply and has temper tantrums and melt downs may simply be manifesting frustration and heightened stress. A child who is undergoing constant bombardment by stressors will, with time, exhaust his adrenal glands. This affects his ability to deal with stress, and he will experience adrenal exhaustion from having to deal with the knock-on affects that adrenal stress has on the body.

Immune System Implications

The adrenal stress response initiates blood flow away from the abdomen and to the working muscles, thereby affecting oxygen and nutrient delivery to and from the gut. The liver is stimulated to supply a greater glucose production to feed the muscles for the “fight or flight” adrenal response. In doing so, it stresses the pancreas, affecting blood sugar levels and sometimes prompting a need for sugar rich foods.

The immune system’s response is determined by the balance of cortisol and DHEA in the blood system. All white cells have a cortisol receptor, and excessive cortisol production will shift the immune response to an elevated Th2 expression, which reduces the body’s ability to clear “bad guys” like bacteria and viruses. It will also reduce the production of Secretory IgA, the main antibody that coats and protects mucosal membranes such as the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract. Excess cortisol also promotes allergies to foods and environmental allergens. Illness is commonly associated with adrenal insufficiency or exhaustion. Also associated with adrenal insufficiency is copper toxicity and with this, deficiencies in zinc, sodium, manganese, inositol, folic acid, A, B1, B6, C and E—all of which are important for the production of ceruloplasmin necessary for the utilization of copper.

Adrenal Support

It is important to provide the nutrients required by the adrenal glands. They use more vitamin C than any other organ or gland in the body. Vitamin C is also acidic, and supplementing it may reduce magnesium and calcium stores (which the adrenals also require), so it is important to supplement these as well. The adrenal glands also require sodium, which is why salt cravings are so common with adrenal insufficiency. The entire B complex of vitamins is required, plus manganese, selenium, molybdenum, chromium, copper and iodine. Amino acids also are required, including L-Serine, L-Threonine, L-Tyrosine, L-Glycine and L-Phenylalanine.

Children with autism seem to respond well to nutritional supplements, especially vitamins B6, B3, B12, B5 and the other B complex vitamins, plus vitamin C, magnesium, sodium and potassium, zinc, calcium and a general multivitamin and mineral. These may support exhausted adrenal function and consequently allow adrenal deficiency symptoms to improve. Many of these supportive nutrients, especially the B vitamins, are additionally synthesized in the gut by the beneficial bacteria. However, findings at my clinic indicate that many children with autism lack these beneficial bacteria.

Picky eaters are particularly susceptible to nutrient deficiencies due to limited food-types and foods deficient in nutrients. Since adrenal stress increases demand for required nutrients, without them adrenal dysfunction is a likely consequence.

Improved Health  And Well Being

The adrenal glands play a crucial role in healthy body function impacting on every aspect of our lives. Adrenal insufficiency and even adrenal exhaustion are commonly unrecognized by the professionals overseeing our and our children’s health care. Simple investigations and recognition of the associated symptoms can provide a key to opening the door of improved health and wellness using proper nutritional support for us, and our children.

To most benefit your adrenals and your child’s, remember it is essential to both supply the necessary nutrients and also to reduce stressors. Try to increase enjoyable activities, spend time relaxing, breathe deeply and take regular exercise. If you can cut back on—or entirely remove—sugar, caffeine, and salt from your diet that will help, as will increasing sleep and avoiding waste of energy.

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