The challenge of the spectrum of disorders we call autism demands that we cast a wide net in hunting down anything that might aid improvement. Herbal medicine, while not yet on a par with other alternative autism treatments in the United States, offers promise for a swath of common problems that accompany the syndrome.
My experience with herbs and autism has been excellent. My daughter, now 16 years old, with Asperger’s syndrome, also developed absence seizures at age 11. Herbal remedies, as part of a holistic treatment package, have brought great improvement for her over the years. In cooperation with her neurologist, we brought her to the point of being seizure free without drugs, and she has improved steadily in all other ways over the years.
The number of potential herbal medicines is huge. You might use herbs to treat, in addition to seizures, acute infections and yeast overgrowth. Add to that the potential for supporting healthy immune, nervous, digestive, and respiratory systems, and you have a potent addition to your therapeutic repertoire.
Long History of Use
Our definition of autism is a recent concept. Traditional medicine has no diagnosis called autism, often using more vague terms to describe what we now would call pervasive developmental delay and related issues. That makes traditional natural healing terms hard to interpret. For example, a Chinese concept called “Phlegm in the heart orifice” describes a condition essentially identical to modern autism. Thus, once we slice through the challenging vocabulary and understand the indications, herbal remedies can be quite effective.
Because what we know about traditional herbal treatments we have gleaned from traditional medical systems, these treatments are often better used in a holistic, therapeutic context and not as isolated remedies.
We are at the beginning of our understanding of herbal medicine because the mechanisms often are unknown, and the safety profile for children is often not established. Still, in general, herbs are remarkably safe. While preliminary results with herbs in autism are promising, you should always consult an expert practitioner for herbal advice.
You could expect to get good results with a child with autism in the areas of enhancing digestion, brain circulation, neuron health, protecting the nervous system from damage, detoxification, and allergy and sensory regulation.
In our discussion, all doses refer to an adult body, so you need to adjust the dose to suit the patient’s size.
Tasty, aromatic ginger is a time-tested medicine for stomach distress, and it is used by nearly every population in the world. Ginger’s effect on motion sickness and nausea has been thoroughly proven, so it’s not surprising that European practitioners use this herb for almost any type of indigestion.1 It reduces spasm, absorbs and neutralizes toxins in the digestive tract and increases digestive secretions, including bile and saliva.2 Ginger contains ingredients that soothe the gastrointestinal tract and aid digestion by increasing the peristalsis that moves food through the gut.3 A study from India demonstrated that ginger speeds up the time it takes the stomach to empty, a benefit for feelings of abdominal discomfort and bloating.4
Ginger is very safe, so you can consume it as desired in food, or use up to 3 grams per day in capsules, or use 1 teaspoon of chopped fresh root, brewed as tea, 3 times a day.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
It’s not often that a powerful herb tastes like delicious soup, but this potent Chinese energizer and immune builder proves to be the exception.
Used to assist healing from chronic illness and as a stamina tonic, Astragalus boosts energy, increases stress adaptation, is particularly antiviral, and amplifies the efficiency of many types of immune function.5 Traditionally, night sweats, wasting disorders, chronic ulcerations and sores, numbness, and edema called for using Astragalus.6
This root is preferred for long-term prevention, but it can be used for acute cold and flu, and it will produce improvement in almost every case.7,8 Chinese families regularly add Astragalus to the family stewpot during the cold season so that everyone can get a daily immune boost. Astragalus is a popular immune enhancer for children who have frequent infections. According to Chinese medicine, Astragalus also fortifies the lungs, so it forms the backbone of a program to prevent and treat respiratory infection.
Many studies have shown its ability to augment immune function, including activity against Coxsackie virus, a flu-like virus that mainly affects children.9,10,11 Polysaccharides, similar to those in Echinacea and shiitake mushrooms, and hormone-like compounds called saponins are credited with many of the herb’s benefits.12 There may be dozens of other active constituents, many of which may be synergistic or supportive of the known active chemicals in Astragalus.
Astragalus, unlike most Chinese medicinal plants, actually tastes surprisingly good as a tea, with a velvety texture and a sweet, buttery taste. For a broth that’s almost like chicken soup, cook the roots into a soup stock, or make an herbal tea and use that to cook rice or another grain. Use ½ to 1 ounce, dry herb weight, brewed, per day, during the cold season or to replenish a burned out immune system.
Ginkgo is an herb that offers promise for treating a large collection of brain, nerve, and circulatory conditions. It is the most widely-prescribed phytopharmaceutical in the world, with well over 200 published studies to its credit.
Ginkgo acts by increasing blood flow to the brain and central nervous system as well as promoting peripheral circulation, and it exerts a protective effect on cells in general and nerve cells in particular.13 Ginkgo’s unusual biochemical properties lend it to treating memory loss and cognition disorders.
Modern investigations have focused on a standardized extract of the leaf, known as EGb761, a concentrate of about 50:1. The resulting ginkgo biloba extract (GBE) contains a consistent 24% flavonoid glycosides and 6% terpene lactones. Ginkgo leaf is very safe; side effects are almost nonexistent.
By all accounts, one of the most dramatic properties of ginkgo is on memory, where it improves concentration, short- and long-term memory, absentmindedness, confusion and fatigue.14,15 One interesting French study measured the effect on mental function and found improved vigilance, learning, and memory in volunteers with an average age of 29. The effects were measurable within 30 minutes of taking the herb, peaking at two to three hours, with benefits continuing over several days. Most results are not that immediate, however. Most studies note improvement after one month, with benefits still increasing at six months.
Use the raw powdered herb at 5-10 grams per day in capsules. Today, typical treatment programs employ doses of 120 to 240 mg of GBE per day, a very tiny amount of physical powder, in a capsule.
Gotu kola leaf
Here’s an herb with a long history of brain building. Gotu kola is a mainstay of herbal medicine in Ayurveda, and sneaked into European treatment many years ago. It was used in France in the 1880s. A standout herb for the nervous system, gotu kola has a host of benefits for neurological recovery and cognition.16
The plant is a jungle creeper that grows in hot moist climates in the South and Southeast Asian tropics, from India to the Philippines, and is commonly eaten raw as a green vegetable, with many different kinds of foods, much like a salad. The herb is exceptionally high in B-complex vitamins, especially in B-1, B-2 and B-6, all of which are essential nutrients for the nervous system.
Gotu kola is also called brahmi, which means “godlike,” a nod to its anti-aging properties and to its use as an aid to cognition. It has a bitter taste and is cooling to the body. Used to promote circulation, especially to the blood vessels of the skin and mucous membranes, it is a rejuvenator for the nerves and brain. As the main South Asian herb for the nervous system, it is used both in the repair of nerve tissues from crushing trauma, such as spinal injury, neuromuscular disorders, and to increase general brain function, memory, concentration, and mental acuity.
Gotu kola strengthens memory, concentration, and intelligence, and promotes longevity.17 This remedy is used to treat disorders as diverse as epilepsy, senility, hair loss, and psoriasis.
A study in rats showed an impressive improvement in memory. The treated rats were able to retain learned behavior 3 to 60 times better than the control rats.18 A Korean study shows that the constituents in gotu kola show potential for treating Alzheimer’s disease. Follow-up animal research from India used gotu kola tea to improve cognitive behavior in two different types of experiments in a laboratory model.20
Gotu kola is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.21,22 The active substances in gotu kola are thought to be triterpenes (steroid-like compounds), which have a balancing effect on connective tissues. These triterpenes improve the function and integrity of the collagen matrix and support the ground substance, the basic glue that holds the cells of our bodies together.
Since gotu kola is basically a mild salad vegetable, the dose can be very high. Try one to four teaspoonfuls of fresh juice every morning. For acute skin disease, use one to two ounces of dry herb, by weight, as a tea, per day. Many people use a modest dose of 1 gram per day in capsules for daily rejuvenation. It is often taken with ghee, clarified butter. Try a cup of gotu kola tea with honey before meditation.
Calamus is a major herb for the mind in Asian medicine. It is said to stimulate the power of self-expression and to enhance intelligence. Ancient yogis and seers used this herb. The root promotes circulation to the brain, heightens memory, enhances awareness, and increases communication and self-expression.
It is a bitter herb that acts as an anti-gas digestive aid and mucolytic, so it sees use in autism. Calamus also has warming respiratory functions.
This herb is often combined with gotu kola, which is cooling and mild. The complementary energetics makes the combination suitable for a wide variety of people.
In attention deficit conditions, it combines well with gotu kola, valerian, shankpushpi and licorice. Over the long term, calamus will warm the body and pacify the mind.
I have made extensive observation of people using calamus to treat epilepsy, especially juvenile petit mal (absence) seizures, and it is dramatically effective, often completely replacing anticonvulsant medication. (Caution: do not treat epilepsy casually. It is a serious and complicated condition, with many causes, and a collection of associated family and social issues.) Cross taper the dose of calamus with the medication, with close monitoring. Always consult a qualified professional.
For epilepsy, again use the calamus with gotu kola and valerian.23
Calamus is combined with the famous triphala combination as a general remedy that bestows intelligence, longevity and good memory.24
Calamus is quite emetic in doses not much larger than the suggested dose, and it may not be compatible for coadministration with other psychoactive drugs, although little is known about these concerns.
It seems almost a shame to use such a powerful and valuable herb on common stomach and lung problems, but calamus is quite serviceable for dyspepsia. For cough, combine it with licorice root.
In the British herbal tradition, calamus root is thought to be a stomach acid balancer. A dose of up to 5 ml of tincture per day will reduce acid, while higher doses stimulate acid production.25
Calamus is a potent herb, so the effective dose is quite reasonable, which increases compliance. Use 1 to 4 grams per day. Work up gradually to the effective dose.
Obviously, treating seizures with natural remedies is a tricky area. There must necessarily be much overlap with medical practice, and it absolutely requires medical overview.
However, we should be reminded that epilepsy is a clinical diagnosis, not an assessment made by EEG. If the seizures are improving, presumably that is to the good. This condition has great potential for drugs and natural medicine in combination.
Peony is blood nourisher. Chinese medicine recommends it to “soften and comfort the liver,” which is so important in hormone balance. Peony root, a sedative and anti-spasmodic, will and allow a comfortable night’s sleep.
The root was a noted anti-epileptic remedy in Greek medicine. Japanese research shows it to be neuron protective and anticonvulsant.
These days, it is also used in Chinese herbalism for insomnia and mood swings.
Use 6-15 grams per day, in tea or capsules.
Lobelia leaf (Lobelia inflata)
Lobelia herb is a classic American remedy for preventing and treating seizures and has a very long record of exceptional success. American herbalists report that, often, this herb alone, with daily preventive doses, will be curative over a few months. There is essentially no science behind this herb, so we are relying on case reports from a century ago and recent clinical observations of practitioners.
Consider using the therapeutic dose in tea, tincture, or capsules for prevention. Use the tincture sublingually and massage this liquid into the base of the skull during a seizure to bring rapid relief. The pure acidified seed tincture may be stronger than the acidified fresh herb tincture, which, in turn, is stronger than the dry herb. Vinegar extract (tincture) is also a possibility.
Lobelia can be nauseating. It is important to increase the dose carefully to the therapeutic levels, which can vary a lot depending on the needs of the case, so this must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The typical daily dose is 5 grams in tea or capsules; for tincture (1:5 or 1:4), it is 15ml. These all refer to divided doses, taken with food. The patient can go higher if needed and tolerated.
Black cohosh root (Actaea racemosa)
Black cohosh root has a history of noted anti-seizure activity. Although now known more for other applications, this herb was used extensively in the past as a relaxant. Use 3 grams per day in capsules.
Herbal medicine holds great promise for supporting health and life. When we apply it to autism in a rational and balanced way, we can expect to see some breakthroughs. Make a point to look at this widely used medicinal system to promote positive change in digestion, cognition, emotional balance, and brain balance. You’ll see that it has a lot to offer.
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5 Rob McCaleb, Boosting Immunity with Herbs. http://www.herbs.org/greenpapers/immune.html
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7 Astragalus, WebMD, http://my.webmd.com/content/article/3187.10602
8 Bone, Kerry, Clinical Applications of Ayurvedic and Chinese Herbs, Phytotherapy Press, Warwick, Queensland, Australia, 1996.
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12 Bensky, Dan, and Gamble, Andrew. Chinese Materia Medica. Eastland Press: Seattle, 1986.
13 Michael T. Murray, N.D., The Healing Power of Herbs Prima, 1995.
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23 Charaka Samhita Ci 10.27.
24 Srikantha Murthy, K.R. Vagbhata’s Astanga Hrdayam. vol. 3. Varanasi: Krishnadas Academy. 1995. p. 387.
25 Chanchal Cabrera, MNIMH, Personal interview.