How integrative / Functional Medicine *could* help people on the Asperger’s / autism spectrum

In a recent post, I gave the majority of Functional Medicine doctors a piece of my Aspie mind.  As both a person on the spectrum and a Functional Medicine doctor myself, I take serious issue with the perhaps-well-intentioned-but-grossly-misinformed approach that is touted as a potential cure-all for spectrumhood.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: the typical Functional Medicine goals of healing the gut, detoxification, heavy metal removal, balancing blood sugar, resolving nutrient deficiencies, etc, do not “cure” someone of their genetics, fetal development, neurobiology, or current brain-wiring.

That doesn’t mean Functional Medicine can’t help us.

Functional Medicine can help dang near anybody.

Functional Medicine can help one become…well, more Functional.

No matter what our neuro-type, anyone can experience dysfunction.  Dysfunction is when, in the body, Stuff Goes Wrong.  Anyone can contract a virus, bacteria, parasite, or fungus.  Anyone can be exposed to heavy metals, environmental chemicals, or other toxins.  Anyone can encounter psychological, emotional, or mental stress.  Anyone can become nutrient deficient.

And as a result, anyone can become nauseated, fatigued, depressed, achy or sore, forgetful, or clumsy.  Anyone can develop acne, tinnitus, pain, “brain fog” (unclear cognition), irritability, or insomnia.

Functional Medicine is a specific type of integrative medicine that, when practiced purely and properly, treats the whole person as a unique individual and considers all aspects of this complex, multifaceted individual in a full health recovery plan.

In order for a healthcare provider to practice true Functional Medicine, they must evaluate the core body physiological functions, such as digestion, immune defense, detoxification, energy production, structural integrity, biochemical signaling and communication, and mind-body (psychological/emotional) connection and its impact on the core body functions.  Ideally, this provider should also consider genetic variations, which are surprisingly common and can have an incredible impact on any of the above.  A person’s entire health history, prenatal factors, dietary nutrition, relationships and support systems, as well as lifestyle (exercise, stress management, sleep, etc) should also all be deeply considered.

When certain issues are found, a good integrative or Functional Medicine provider will then consider the needs, desires, goals, resources, lifestyle, learning style, and belief system of each person and construct a health recovery plan that covers all of those aspects.  This recovery plan could include herbs, nutrition, food plans, physical activity plans, stress management techniques, other world medicine systems (such as Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda, etc), body work therapies such as massage therapy or chiropractic/osteopathy, pharmaceuticals or surgical procedures when needed, acupuncture, or even fun and easy brain exercises.

It’s a pretty amazing “healthcare operating system”!  (I admit, I’m biased; it’s one of my Special Interests.) 🙂

While Functional Medicine can’t “cure” or “resolve” Asperger’s or autism spectrumhood any more than it can “cure” you of being German or blue-eyed or left-handed, it can certainly help anyone (whether they’re on the spectrum or not) function better with what they have.

This could indeed have some unique implications for people on the spectrum.  Non-verbal spectrum-mates could begin to be more verbal.  Those like myself who frequently experience clumsiness, forgetfulness, or anxiety could begin to see improvements in those areas.

What this means: our place on the spectrum may begin to feel less like a disability and more like a gift or otherwise positive (or at least neutral) status.

Today I’d like to touch on a few specific ideas.  Although I am indeed a doctor, none of this is meant to be intended as any type of medical adviceI’m an advocate of doing one’s homework and carefully selecting practitioners to work with, but I’m not an advocate of what is known as “self-treatment”.  I highly recommend forming a partnership with the best-qualified providers you can find; I don’t recommend trying to be your own.

That being said, I’d like to provide some possible starting points that are often not discussed in “conventional medicine”, but may help immensely (either as shown by published research papers or by reliable clinical experiential anecdotes).  Because those of us on the spectrum tend to do well with specifics, I’ve gotten somewhat specific with my list of ideas.  That being said, this is not–by any means–a complete list.  It’s merely a few “drops” in an “ocean” of possibilities.  But hopefully, you’ll find them to be really neat “drops”. 🙂

 

Fundamental Concepts:

First, the most powerful decisions we make involve our nutritional intake and the foods we eat.  Every bite of food that goes into our mouth leads us either toward a path of greater health or toward one of worsening dysfunction (and eventually disease and death).  Eating clean, fresh, whole foods with minimal additives, chemicals, refining, or processing is ideal.  A gluten-free food plan (one entirely free of wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and all of their derivatives of any kind) is ideal, since many have unrealized gluten reactivity.  Pesticides, growth hormones, preservatives, colorings, flavorings, flavor-enhancers, artificial sweeteners, binders, thickeners, and other fillers or contaminants can be extremely problematic; people with Asperger’s/autism may find ourselves to be especially sensitive.

Second, reduce stress as much as possible.  There may be stressors in your life that we may be able to wield some control over, such as our jobs or careers/lines of work, where we live, with whom we associate, saying yes when we should have said no, financial stressors, long commutes/traffic, voluntary participation in too many social situations, being apprehensive about setting healthy boundaries or commanding respect for yourself, etc.  Some of these stressors may be tougher to change; for example, your job may involve more of a niche specialty in which positions are hard to come by, or you’re locked into an income bracket and an emergency came up that caused a financial crunch…you get the idea.  But the idea here is to try, to analyze your every day life and identify possible aspects that cause you stress, and brainstorm for potential solutions or modifications that might reduce that stress.  The stress we can’t reduce, we have to “burn off” or manage through a healthy outlet or a good balance/mixture of physical activity, mental activity, and constructive special interests (more on this topic below).

Neurotransmitter function – Neurotransmitters are brain-signaling chemicals that play a major role in our mood, cognitive function, and mental/emotional well-being.  Not only do levels of these biochemicals need to be “not too much or not too little, but just right”, they must also be balanced in proportion to each other.  Imbalances can cause depression, lack of motivation, poor memory, impaired focus, sadness, irritability, anger, anxiety, panic attacks, attention deficits, insomnia, hopelessness, and/or fatigue.  These can be evaluated/assessed/tested in several different ways; these include various lab tests or questionnaires.  They can also be supported or treated in several different ways, including with foods, nutritional supplementation, pharmaceutical prescriptions (although I personally use the latter as an absolute last resort).

 

Lifestyle 101:

Brain exercises are quick, easy, and often fun.  They don’t have to cost anything (beyond the initial personal training or smartphone/smartpad app), and you can usually do them in the comfort of your own home; you don’t even usually have to wear any special clothes or buy any other equipment.  They often take only a matter of minutes, require hardly any exertion, and can work fast to help strengthen memory, ease anxiety, improve happiness and focus, and even improve balance and coordination (an entire list of many references given here).

Physical activity (notice that I did not say “exercise”; just seeing that word makes me tired!  “Physical activity” sounds much more fun, which it is!) – It’s very important to Keep Moving and Stay Active.  “Active” doesn’t mean you need to join a gym and run on a treadmill like a gerbil for two hours.  It also doesn’t mean you need to bench press or squat 200 pounds.  It doesn’t mean you have to go jogging in the heat or rain, either.  But on the flip side, it’s notoriously harmful to simply be a couch potato.  The brain relies on physical activity in order to keep itself properly coordinated and balanced.  We rely on movement for efficient metabolism (which includes all the cells in our body; metabolism is not just a weight loss/gain concept; it’s much more body-wide).  We rely on movement for oxygenation.  It can help reduce stress, build muscle tone, reduce inflammation (as long as we don’t do it too often or for too long), and generally make us happier and smarter (!)

Weighted blankets are another excellent tool for stress management.  The price can run a little high, but many on the spectrum have sung their praises, calling these blankets a lifesaver, and wondering how they ever got by without them.  Since many Aspies/autistics frequently battle insomnia, these blankets can be a godsend for high-quality sleep.

 

Addressing Causes of Dysfunction:

What I’m about to say here make me sound like a hypocrite.  As you read this section, you might begin to think, “wait a minute: isn’t she making the very recommendations she criticized other Functional Medicine doctors for making??”  Indeed I am making those recommendations, but for completely different reasons.  Other practitioners make these recommendations to try to “cure” spectrum “conditions”.  That’s not my goal; my goal is specifically to improve function and quality of life.

Proper gastrointestinal tract (GI) healing is a must.  There is a strong and evidence-based special relationship between the digestive system and the brain.  Almost every single one of my patients have turned up with gluten intolerance, which severely impacts GI health, and thus, the brain.  Almost every single patient has also been observed to have either a disease-causing or opportunistic microbe (bacteria, yeast/fungus, parasite, or virus) overgrowth in the GI tract, also severely affecting digestive health and brain function.  Stress and problematic foods can thin and weaken the digestive tract tissue, leading to a whole body-wide physiological mess (fascinating reference given here).  Many people on the spectrum do indeed have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), gut bacterial imbalance, and/or reactivity to certain foods, especially gluten and very likely, dairy, soy, or eggs.

Any infection or other source of inflammation must be identified and resolved as best as possible.  I usually find infections in the GI tract, the teeth (and their roots!), and urinary tract.  Other forms of inflammation include allergic reactions, other types of immune-related reactions, autoimmune disorders (where the immune reaction is directed toward part of one’s own body), obesity, or inflammation induced by radiation or a diet heavy in inflammation-promoting foods.  There is a plethora of ways to evaluate these, and about as many ways to address these issues, most of which may not need to include pharmaceutical drugs.  Inflammation anywhere in the body can indeed cause a corresponding incidence of inflammation in the brain.  This can exaggerate our difficulties and make it hard for us to utilize our gifts.

Toxicity can also be a huge detriment to healthy function.  This, too, can magnify our disadvantages and prevent us from tapping into our talents.  Toxic burden is surprisingly common, and they can create a wide variety of nasty symptoms, ranging from pain to “brain fog” to sudden irritability to abdominal pain or muscle pain, to muscle twitches, to bowel issues, to fatigue, to headaches, to depression, to isolation and/or anxiety (the last two of which we are often especially prone to)…you get the idea.  The most common toxins I see are of course the five major heavy metals (Aluminum, Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury), but also secondary toxic elements, such as Fluoride and others.  I also see evidence of household or lawn-care chemicals, pesticides, environmental pollution, and many other toxins.  Toxins especially affect the brain, which is a sensitive and delicate organ (the brain is kind of high-maintenance!) and they deplete the nutrients that the body uses to eliminate them.  Again, there is a wide variety of evaluation methods, all of which have their advantages and drawbacks.  Addressing toxicity, although a very important step to getting healthy and feeling better, is an extremely body- and mind-sensitive procedure, and it’s extremely important to work with someone with a licensed (MD, DC, or DO) and actual formal (and current!) training in this area specifically.

 

Adjunct Therapies:

Acupuncture can be absolutely amazing and it can have a wide variety of positive effects!  If you can think of a symptom you’d like to (realistically) go away or a health goal you’d like to (realistically) achieve, acupuncture can probably deliver.  Yes, traditional acupuncture involves inserting thin, tiny needles into places on your skin that hardly ever bleed, and for some reason, they’re not usually full of pain-sensing nerve endings, either, so it’s not like pricking your finger.  That being said, a lot of us slink away at the very thought of needles (my body very often can’t handle needles; they’re supposed to be painless, but sometimes I feel a pinch anyway or end up overstimulated or even develop a histamine response around the inserted needle, all of which are due to some of my spectrum-consistent sensory processing issues).  That’s no problem.  A good licensed acupuncturist will have been trained in about four or five other methods of acupuncture that can work just as well and don’t involve needles at all, and are quick, painless, and non-invasive.

Natural supplementation may be needed.  In fact, it almost always is.  Natural supplements are all extremely safe when used under the guidance of a licensed and properly-trained professional.  These may include single or combined nutrients, botanicals (herbs), homeopathic medicines, glandular extracts, and many others.  Although these are available over-the-counter, please beware several caveats:  1) Just because supplements are natural, that doesn’t mean they can’t cause harm.  I’ve seen plenty of people in my office who have spent the past few years “discovering” a “miracle” supplement to “cure” a problem they’re convinced they have, and mess themselves up in the meantime, sometimes causing lasting damage.  DO have a qualified professional do the proper lab testing and make personalized recommendations; 2) Store-bought supplements, while they appear to be the same thing with a lower price tag, come with their own potential problems.  The quality of cheaper products is almost always inferior to that of medical-grade supplementation.  The cheaper products come from areas in which regulations may be minimal or nonexistent, and thus there may be more contamination in a supplement than there are beneficial compounds; and 3) Self-treating gone bad usually begins with an incorrect self-diagnosis.  We can’t diagnose ourselves based on symptoms alone, especially if we’re not formally trained in this area.  Many symptoms overlap, making it tricky for those with proper schooling to get the correct answer right away.

Good counseling may help.  I specify “good”; even though that should go without saying and although I’ve seen my share of excellent and constructive counselors, the better ones seem to be more the exception than the rule.  It may take time (as well as a lot of trial-and-error) to find a good one.  But that good one who stands out from the rest can make a world of difference.  Sometimes it just helps to talk to someone who isn’t related to you or otherwise connected to you in any other way.  If it does help to talk, a good counselor may help us identify and work through issues causing anxiety, overstimulation, irritability, or other types of overload.

 

If You’re Inclined:

Cultivate a positive, understanding support group or network of close family and/or friends, if desired.  These are people you can turn to one at a time and lean on for support during tough times when you need someone to listen.  Choose these people wisely.  These people should be appreciative of and/or curious about your special interests, or otherwise respect your need to vent or relieve anxiety (for some on the spectrum, the act of talking actually helps relieve anxiety).

Alternative: If you’re less inclined to reach out to others when you’re feeling down, pick a quiet place (if you haven’t done this already) that you can easily and quickly access.  This might be a favorite tree, a big closet, a room in an attic, or a hobby room.

At the very least: Minimize contact with toxic, negative, or unsupportive people as much as possible.

Creative outlets can provide excellent therapy.  These include art (painting, sculpture, crafts, making clothing or jewelry, etc), music (composing, playing an instrument, listening, or even singing), writing (such as poetry, short stories, novels, screenplays, or journaling), and many others.

Alternative: If you’re not as much the Right-brain type of person, any special interest will do; that includes the sciences, too!  Puzzles, building models, performing small experiments, geography, botany, gardening, even playing with Legos–these all count!  Learning new things about any subject you like, etc, will all bring relaxing and therapeutic effects, too.

Spiritual outlets, such as prayer, meditation, or even a walk in nature to talk to yourself, your Higher Self, or a neutral, nondescript Higher Power, can all be extremely powerful.


With all of the above in mind, however, the very best thing one can do is to find a good Functional Medicine doctor (it doesn’t matter if they’re licensed as an MD/Medical Doctor, DC/Doctor of Chiropractic, or DO/Doctor of Osteopathy.  What does matter is that they’ve received top-notch training in Functional and/or Integrative Medicine, they actually practice Functional Medicine the way it was meant to be practiced, and, most importantly, their hearts are in the right place).

It’s just as important that this doctor is extremely aware and well-versed in the current, progressive thinking on Asperger’s/autism, and that they understand what it is and is not.  It’s crucial that they practice not just “awareness”, but also acceptance, and that they are accommodating and supportive.  I’ll address how to clear the mental “hurdles” of reaching out to such practitioners in a future post 🙂

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting article! I certainly agree that eliminating stress can work miracles in how we Aspies can improve our ability to function at a much higher level. Once I retired from my high-stress job in retail management, I almost immediately began to think clearer, sleep better, and become more social….which my family and friends have certainly noticed and appreciate!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome, and Congratulations! I’m *very* happy for you. That had to have felt good. 🙂

      Like

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