Step 1-Believing is the first step towards change

Believing that it is possible to prevent something, or that it is worth trying to prevent something, is really the first step to take before other action steps are likely to happen.

At this stage of research causes of autism and autoimmune disease and many other chronic diseases are not clear. What is more clear are associations – correlations between other diseases or lifestyle habits and risk of autoimmune or other chronic illness. In early stages of understanding a problem it is not easy to provide clear guidance or recommendations for what action steps to take to try to prevent the condition or promote remission of symptoms because the answers are not available. Clear guidance in the medical community is not given until it can be based on multiple research studies that all find similar results which then are used to form the “evidence based” medical guidance.

In the spirit of preventative medicine one is working on the belief that actions taken throughout life can affect one’s later quality of health one way or the other – this requires having a basic belief that developing chronic illness is not just due or always due just to fate or having bad luck.

In early stages of understanding a problem it can be unknown whether an action taken with the intent of helping might not actually be harming; or whether it is benign-neither helping or harming-and therefore a waste of time and money to continue. Waiting for the years of research to lead to the evidence based recommendations might help clarify some of those answers but — that is then and this is now.

So in the meantime looking at the conditions and lifestyle habits that are associated with developing or having autism or autoimmune or other chronic disease can:

  • give some guidance towards who is more at risk and therefore who might benefit the most from taking more proactive preventative lifestyle habits;
  • and also what preventative health action steps might already be known that have been found to help resolve the conditions that have been associated with autism or autoimmune disease from first developing or reduce risk of them from worsening;
  • and it can give some clear guidance as to which lifestyle activities have been associated with the diseases and which therefore it might be best to limit or stop doing those activities altogether.

A list of ideas that may help minimize risks for developing autism is available on the Autism Research Institute’s website autism.com/prevention . Lifestyle tips that help promote health are usually beneficial for protecting health in general, when age and gender appropriate.

Autism and autoimmune disease have some similarities in that the body is attacking itself. Underlying genetic conditions that affect metabolism and increase risk for certain nutrient deficiencies may also be increasing risk for developing autism or autoimmune disease. And there is early research findings that suggest Alzheimer’s disease may have some similarity to autism in the way it develops. Strategies that help prevent some types of illnesses from developing or from worsening may be found to help protect against many chronic illnesses.

Deficiency of certain nutrients simply due to chronic lack in the diet could also lead to a similar increased risk for developing autism or autoimmune disease. Prenatal health may be a critical time for preventing both risk of autism or other neurological conditions from developing for the child and autoimmune disease for the mother later in life.

Vitamin D has important roles during pregnancy and in general for protecting against being overly allergic. An expectant infant’s DNA is foreign to the mother’s immune system and low nutrient levels may leave her body more resistant/allergic. Genetic differences may leave some people more prone for nutrient deficiencies and others may just be deficient – recognizing who needs special supplements or increased amounts of nutrients is just as important for their health as providing enough food for the person of normal health but limited money. Stress levels and infections or exposure to antigens during pregnancy may also increase risk for autism developing in the child later in life.

Adequate vitamin D is essential for helping the white blood cells of the pregnant mother to be more tolerant – less ‘allergic’ to the the foreign DNA of the infant. The infant is only half related to the mother; the other half of it’s DNA is from the father. Breastfeeding can also help promote tolerance for the infant to any remaining maternal DNA which the baby may have gotten during the prenatal weeks. A few cells can cross the placenta from either the infant to the mother or from the mother to the infant. The condition is called microchimerism and it may provide some benefits against cancer and dementia but it also may be associated with increased risk for autoimmune disease developing later in life.

So Step 2 towards protecting health at all ages, after first believing that a difference in health outcomes can result from the actions that are chosen on a daily basis, is to plan pregnancies. Unplanned pregnancies are more associated with birth defects and autism or other neurological conditions developing in the infant; and having a pregnancy and carrying a baby to term are associated with autoimmune disease developing in women.

Step 2a, 2b, 2c, etc all involve developing healthy lifestyle changes for your individual genetic needs before ever attempting a pregnancy for the woman or before attempting to impregnate a woman for a man – his habits can affect the infant’s risk of autism; and a woman’s health habits are protecting both herself and the baby from the moment of  conception, through successful implantation and carrying of the baby to term and through breastfeeding the infant for several months at least.

(Sneak preview: 2a – if you are a woman in childbearing years it is recommended to take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid in case of a pregnancy occurring at anytime even if you weren’t planning it or to start taking one a few months prior to trying to conceive; 2b – b for bonus effort for women in childbearing years, get a genetic screening done to see if you have any of the methylation cycle defects common to the autism spectrum which make getting a prenatal vitamin with folate a better idea than using the standard supplements that contain the less bioactive form folic acid, my own screening results with link to the company I used – other services are also available but genetic screening is not yet part of standard health care so it is not something your family doctor is likely to recommend routinely; 2c – don’t drink alcohol in excess and then have unprotected sex afterwards whether you are a man or a woman – excess alcohol use by either parent can negatively affect the infant if one is conceived.

Which leads to corollary of 2a – should men of childbearing age take a prenatal vitamin/mineral supplement in case they conceive a child? – Zinc deficiency can worsen Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and has also been associated with developing autism or worse symptoms of autism. Whether it is as important for a man to be well nourished at a child’s conception for reducing risk of autism as the woman’s nutrient status is a question for further research. Zinc and autism.

2d – a multi vitamin or prenatal supplement with the D3 form of vitamin D may be more bioactive and potentially more helpful than the commonly used D2 form.)

This list of ideas for minimizing risks for autism that I mentioned is available on the Autism Research Institute’s website autism.com/prevention  contains some tips organized in sections geared towards different stages of life. These health tips would also be likely to be protective against other neurological (ADHD, PPI) and birth defects from developing in infants and children.

My long-term goal is expand some of those steps into a flowchart of action steps that will guide different types of individuals based on their responses to the questions to the ideas that may be more helpful for their background or for their set of symptoms.

Waiting to see if chronic illness develops and continuing daily life as usual until it does develop, might also be helping the illness to develop. Studying what is associated with health problems can help suggest what preventative action steps might be worth trying while we’re waiting for the evidence based guidance to become funded and to take place, and then to get published and to make it into patient handouts.

While we’re waiting for that, we can take the first step right now by believing that protecting health is possible through our daily choices of self care, versus waiting to see how self neglect or self harm treats our health, and then our next steps will be actively working to develop and continue daily self care habits.

Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and the information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes.