Welcome to the third in our special series sharing insights and recent research from the MEDMAPS 2023 Spring Conference attended by Dr. Potter. MAPS stands for Medical Academy for Pediatric Special Needs and arose from the original Defeat Autism Now organization initially serving parents and providers caring for children with autism spectrum disorder). This Spring Conference focused not only on autism research but on Lyme and other infections including COVID’s effects on children. Come back in the coming weeks to read more about what I learned at the conference so that Sanctuary can provider cutting edge care to your precious little ones.
We were created and continue to function as interconnected systems, each part dependent on the others, no single system ever acting as an island, isolated and self-sustaining. While all systems are interdependent, some systems (like the gastrointestinal system) extend their reach further and deeper than others. This concept is nothing new- any past patient, adult or child, at Sanctuary can attest to our attention to gut health-, but the recent conference’s review of gut health’s effects in our pediatric patients serves as a good reminder that we are on the right track in caring for our patient’s GI health. The conference focused on autism, PANS/PANDAS, and various chronic infections in children, but everyone agreed that beginning with a healthy gut paved the way for other therapies to impact children’s health.
To drive this home, let’s walk through the pathways of interdependency between the GI tract and systems like the immune system, the nervous system, the detoxification system, the endocrine system, as well as our mitochondrial energy production. In some direct or indirect way, the activities within our tube from mouth to anus influences these systems either towards or away from optimal health.
Potentially one of the better studied yet still developing areas of interdependent systems is the GI / immune system interaction. As medical science progressed, the vast array and numbers of immune cells which patrol our GI tract became very obvious. Given the daily barrage of substances and chemicals and microbes marching through our GI tube along with nutrients, this should come as no surprise. Without a surveillance system, noxious toxins or nefarious microbes could gain easy access to our blood stream, sabotaging and harming us from within.
The necessity of a GI based immune system goes beyond this preventive function; in fact, the GI tract serves as a training ground for our immune system. The friendly microbes, including bacteria, some parasites, and some viruses, provide boot camp training for our immune system. Their stimulation of various immune receptors and immune cells keep our immune balance in check and ready for the real bad guys. Keeping our immune cells primed for actions against these bad guys prevents the invaders from rapidly overwhelming our immune defenses. Besides keeping the immune cells primed, these friendly microbial neighbors directly keep unwelcome microbial neighbors from moving in. We experience the consequences of depleting these friendly microbes when we take antibiotics for some infection and end up with dysbiosis like C. Diff colitis or yeast infections.
Caring for your children’s GI tract therefore can go a long way in improving their immunity. This balance not only helps lessen the frequency and severity of viral illnesses as seen with probiotics, but also decreases the chances of immune dysfunction like allergies and autoimmunity. A well balanced diet with a good mix of phytonutrients and fiber while avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, keeps their systems humming along much better than the standard American diet.
While the immune system quickly makes perfect sense for an interaction, the nervous system would not seem as robust an opportunity. However, with a little digging, the interaction’s profound impact comes to the surface like a good burp. The first connection comes to mind when one considers that the nervous system’s serotonin neurotransmitter for mood is exceeded in total amount by the GI tract’s use of this same chemical. The presence of serotonin in such high levels in the gut play a role in proper functioning and the development of conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
From another angle, an unexpected connection comes from research into the etiology of Parkinson’s disease. In this condition, the part of the nervous system controlling movement is damaged by misfolding proteins leading to tremors and slow or frozen movements. Recent research is showing that somehow this misfolding of proteins may begin in the gut and travel up the Vagus nerve which connects the gut to the brain.
This vagal nerve connection likely also plays a role in connecting GI symptoms with some neuropsychiatric symptoms. The connections between depression or anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome as well as other GI disorders plays off both the shared neurotransmitter serotonin and the vagal nerve connection. When therapies have taken these relationships into consideration, therapy has been much more successful in general.
Beyond the role of serotonin and the vagus nerve, the bacteria in our colons also influence our brains through chemicals produced. These not only produce brain influencing chemicals beyond neurotransmitters, but also respond to hormones and chemicals produced by our nervous system like adrenaline.
For our children with PANS/PANDAS or autism spectrum disorder, what goes on in their guts can lead to inflammation in their brains. Avoiding excitatory substances like artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives found in processed foods often calms children who are struggling with brain inflammation. Providing adequate anti-inflammatory phytonutrients helps put out some of the flames in the brain, helping little Johnny and little Susy to feel less agitated and fried. Removing known triggers foods found by history or testing sometimes brings us another step closer to healthier kid brains.
Medical Disclaimer: These essays are for educational purposes only. We assume no responsibility for your choice to implement something from these essays. Even if you are a patient of our clinic, you should consult with us before adding therapies. If you are not one of our patients, talk with your health care provider before trying any of these therapies.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.