If your child is among the one in 59 children in the U.S. identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), chances are good that they also have chronic digestive issues, including constipation and leaky gut. This happens when their good gut bacteria are out of balance. Frustratingly, these gut disorders often contribute to a child’s irritability.
Scientists are now finding that a simple dietary change such as increasing soluble fiber intake may improve both constipation and irritability in children with ASD.
What your gut tells your brain – and vice versa – is part of what we call the gut/brain axis. The good bacteria in your gut create most of the chemical substances responsible for your mood. With autism, this gut/brain connection malfunctions. When the gut has an imbalance of the wrong kinds of bacteria, it sends improper signals to the brain. That can show up as irritability. So, the question is: How can we change the gut bacteria so your child feels and behaves better?
New Nutritional Research
Many people turn to probiotics – or dietary supplements that contain beneficial bacteria – to help restore gut balance, but only a handful of very specific strains of bacteria have been shown in clinical studies to help improve mood – and most probiotic supplements don’t tell you what strains of bacteria they contain. Another approach is to “feed” the good bacteria their preferred source of food (fiber), to optimize their growth and metabolism.
Soluble fiber, also known as prebiotic fiber, feeds the gut’s good bacteria and helps to establish a healthier balance of good bacteria in the gut. Soluble fiber is also known to help manage occasional constipation. The theory is that by using soluble fiber to support gut health, behavior might also improve.
Ten years ago, if researchers had told their universities they wanted to give fiber to address symptoms of autism, they would have been laughed out of the room. Yet today, this is a promising area of clinical research. Early published studies have recently found a connection between soluble fiber intake and management of ASD symptoms.
In one pilot study published in the Journal of Clinical Biochemical Nutrition, researchers at the Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine supplemented the diets of 13 children diagnosed with ASD with 6 grams/day of guar fiber. This is a soluble fiber ingredient widely available in the U.S. Here, it is known as Sunfiber.
The children – 12 boys and one girl – ranged from 4 to 9 years old. By the end of the first week, all the children experienced some constipation relief. They went from pooping once or twice a week to being able to go two to four times a week. Their irritability – measured on a standardized scale – also improved significantly.
Sunfiber is all natural and is easy to use with kids because it doesn’t change the flavor, color, texture or aroma of whatever you mix it into — meaning kids don’t have to know it is in there. It also is certified Kosher, gluten-free, vegetarian, Non-GMO Project Verified and Monash University Low FODMAP Certified. You can find Sunfiber without a prescription as a stand-alone product and in numerous formulas, including MentaBiotics and Regular Girl.
Fiber is important for our overall health. Most of us only get somewhere between 15 and 18 grams of fiber daily, while we should aim for 28 grams. But we all know children can get picky. To sneak more fiber into their meals, keep fresh fruit, dried fruit and popcorn around for snacks. Use whole grain pasta. Add chia seeds to smoothies. Toss diced zucchini or shredded carrots into spaghetti sauce. Supplementing with a well-researched fiber supplement is also a smart way to increase everyone’s total fiber intake.
By Shawn Talbott, who holds a master’s degree in Exercise Science from University of Massachusetts and a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Rutgers. He also holds advanced certificates in Entrepreneurship and Innovation from MIT. Talbott is a Fellow of both the American College of Sports Medicine and the American College of Nutrition. As a Diplomate of the International Olympic Committee’s Sports Nutrition program, he has educated elite-level athletes in a variety of sports including at the United States Olympic Training Centers. His work has been featured in media outlets around the world, as well as at the White House as part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity.