Could Maternal Autoimmune Disease Cause Autism?

Maternal autoimmune disease, like Hashimoto's thyroiditis, have been shown to increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. There has been speculation about the connection between maternal autoimmune disease and the risk of autism in children, and a recent review of 9,775 cases and 952,211 controls in the scientific journal Behavioural Brain Research further highlights this connection. 

While the development of autism is multifactorial and there is not one known cause, this review demonstrates a positive association between the increased risk of autism in children born of women with an autoimmune condition, including autoimmunity developed during pregnancy or maternal thyroid disease.

Researchers even go so far as to call maternal autoimmunity an independent risk factor for autism.

According to several observational studies, maternal autoimmune disease active during pregnancy could increase the risk of autism 15-78%, specifically rheumatic arthritis, psoriasis, systemic lupus, and autoimmune thyroid disease.

This particular review found that maternal autoimmunity is associated with a 34% risk of autism in children compared with the control groups.

One theory is that mothers with autoimmune diseases create more autoantibodies and inflammatory cytokines than mothers with without autoimmunity. Some of these antibodies may attack certain proteins in fetal brain tissue, in addition to causing inflammation in the developing brain.

In fact, these antibodies were detected in 10-12% of mothers who had children with autism, and were completely absent in mothers with children without autism.

Mom's immune imbalances can alter baby's DNA.

It’s also shown that the compromised immune system of the mother can alter the immune system of the child at a genetic level, a process that has been shown to be involved in the occurrence of autism.

Autoimmune diseases not only affect the health of the mother, but may affect the health of their children. The good news is, we can help mothers with autoimmunity heal.

5 Steps to Take If You Have An Autoimmune Disease

1. Find a Doctor Who Is Experienced in Maternal Autoimmune Disease.

Women with autoimmune disease have special needs when it comes to fertility and pregnancy. I can NOT stress enough how important it is to find a doctor who has experience and stays up to date on the latest research in this area. 

Navigating autoimmune disease as a patient is hard enough on its own and can become even more difficult and confusing once you become pregnant.

Starting holistic preconception care one year before you start trying for baby can make all the difference in your health and baby's. In my practice, I help women put their autoimmune disease in to remission as part of their preconception plan.

2. Heal your gut. 

“Leaky gut” or intestinal permeability is found in many cases of autoimmunity. Damage in the gut can exacerbate autoimmune conditions and inhibit your body from absorbing nutrients from food, or even absorbing certain medications! Have your doctor test for and treat any gut issues.

Read more about the importance of a healthy gut in pregnancy.

3. Test for chronic infection.

Ask your doctor to assess and test for any possible chronic infections that contribute to autoimmunity, such as SIBO and epstein barr virus.

4. Reduce stress to reduce inflammation.

Stress causes inflammation and chronic, systemic inflammation is ultimately at the root of all chronic disease. Make the time for deep breathing or slate 10 minutes per day for meditation, which has been shown to significantly reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

Read more about stress reducing techniques. 

5. Check your vitamin D levels regularly.

Low vitamin D levels can compromise the immune system, thus making autoimmune conditions worse. Knowing your levels can help your provider determine the appropriate level of supplementation.

I recommend 60-70 nmol/L to patients to help maintain overall health. Conventional ranges allow for vitamin D to be as low as 30. For most people, 30 nmol/L is too low and may have a negative impact on your immune health.

More Resources to Help

If your thinking about becoming pregnant or are just looking for a great resource to help balance your hormones, download your free Hormone Starter Kit, which includes a 7 day meal plan and recipes.

If you're looking for reliable information about Hashimoto's autoimmune thyroid disease (the most common autoimmune disease affecting women) and the role it plays in fertility, pregnancy and postpartum, I invite you to watch The Thyroid Secret. The world premiere takes place March 1st! Grab your free tickets here.

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten is a Functional Medicine Naturopathic Medical Doctor and the founder of Rubus Health, a women’s medicine clinic that specializes in women's hormones. She is recognized as a leading expert in Post-Birth Control Syndrome and the long-term side effects associated with hormonal contraceptives. Dr. Brighten is the best selling author, speaker and regular contributor to several online publications including MindBodyGreen. She is a medical advisor for one of the first data-driven apps to offer women personalized birth control recommendations.