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ADHD, Autism, Anxiety:  The Clostridia – Dopamine Connection

Over the past few decades, researchers and scientists have learned a lot about the microbiome — the bacterial population present in and on our bodies. While you may not love the idea of being inhabited by thousands of microscopic organisms, they are important and beneficial to our health (especially the populations in the gut).

When everything is balanced and healthy it positively impacts our immune system, our mood, and our digestion. But sometimes our microbiome can work against us.  If you have too much of the wrong bacteria, you can develop problems that show up in places that don’t even seem connected to your gut.

A healthy microbiome has a large and diverse population of bacteria. There is always some potentially harmful bacteria in the mix. As long as things stay in balance, the good bacteria will overpower the bad bacteria, rendering them relatively harmless.

From time to time, our microbiome can get out of balance. This kind of microbial dysfunction can result from a variety of things including illness, antibiotic use, or contact with antibacterial products like household cleaners, soaps, and hand sanitizers.

As you can imagine, an out of balance microbiome can cause a variety of digestive symptoms, including constipation, bloating, and diarrhea. What you might not know, however, is that these kinds of imbalances can also lead to impaired brain function, including brain fog, attention issues and mood dysregulation.

Did you know that two of the most important brain chemicals — serotonin and dopamine — are manufactured in the gut?  In fact, 50% of dopamine, along with 95% of serotonin is made in the gut.  Because the production of both of these vital brain chemicals is directly influenced by gut bacteria, imbalances in our gut microbiome can have a direct impact on how we think and how we feel.

This powerful connection between your gut and your brain is  called the enteric nervous system (or ENS).

This week we’re going to look at one specific type of bacteria that can potentially cause problems in children. Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile or C. diff for short is a spore forming bacteria that is linked to nearly half a million cases of colitis annually in the US.

The presence of clostridia isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are actually beneficial species of this bacteria. When your child develops an overgrowth, however, both the gut and the brain can be negatively impacted.

In terms of digestive health, a clostridium difficile overgrowth can cause a variety of  symptoms including abdominal pain, cramps, nausea, fever, dehydration, and loss of appetite. Depending on the individual and the severity of the infection, C-diff also causes psychological and behavioral symptoms.

The Clostridia and Brain Chemical Connection

As mentioned above, as much as 50% of dopamine is produced in the gut. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in motivation, pleasure, and learning. It is an integral part of our reward system, and vital to sustained focus.  Clearly, dopamine is a good thing, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing…

An overgrowth of clostridia in the gut can interfere with how your body processes dopamine. Normally, your body converts dopamine into epinephrine and norepinephrine. These are both hormones and neurotransmitters that help the body handle stress. You may have heard them called adrenaline and noradrenaline.

An overgrowth of clostridia keeps your body from converting dopamine into these stress hormones. So when you or your child has a clostridia overgrowth, these brain chemicals stay out of balance. You end up with excess dopamine and not enough epinephrine and norepinephrine.

This brain chemical imbalance can cause symptoms including:

  • Paranoia
  • Intense excitement
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Emotional eating
  • Anxiety
  • Autistic behaviors
  • Impaired emotional regulation
  • Poor concentration/ focus/ memory/brain fog
  • Lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Apathy

Clostridia overgrowth is associated with a variety of mood disorders including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and more.

How does clostridia connect to autism and other disorders?

There is evidence that children severely affected by autism have a higher concentration of HVA (the metabolite that results from dopamine metabolism). This indicates that these children have higher dopamine levels — which is consistent with a clostridia overgrowth.

Children with autism also tend to have lower levels of the enzyme responsible for changing dopamine into norepinephrine. These levels can be low enough to result in psychological conditions. These imbalanced levels may also result in damage to the brain, adrenal glands, and sympathetic nervous system if they aren’t corrected. The damage can lead to the abnormal mood and behavior changes associated with autism and schizophrenia.

How can you tell if your child has a clostridia overgrowth?

Dopamine doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier into the peripheral nervous system, which means you can’t measure it directly. However, because dopamine produces metabolites (by-products) that do cross the blood-brain barrier, it can be measured indirectly.

If there is an indication of an elevated dopamine to norepinephrine ratio, clostridia may be the culprit. The Organic Acid Test (OAT) can detect clostridia metabolites and measure levels of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. This can give your practitioner a good idea about a potential clostridia overgrowth. There are also stool tests available that can detect the bacteria.

How can you treat a clostridia overgrowth?

In my practice, I use a variety of botanicals that gently and effectively address clostridium difficile:

Biocidin — a blend of 18 botanical extracts and essential oils targeted to towards dysboitic bacteria in the gut.

Grape Seed Extract (GSE) — made from the bitter seeds of grapes. GSE is good for brain health and reduces oxidative damage.

Myrrh — made from tree sap, myrrh is a powerful antioxidant that also improves gut health.

Oregano — a culinary herb that is antibacterial, rich in antioxidants, and contains compounds that reduce inflammation.

Olive leaf extract — which protects the nervous and digestive systems, inhibits the growth of microorganisms, has anti-inflammatory properties, and is high in antioxidants.

Berberine — a bioactive compound with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits that also helps combat depression.

Artemisinin — derived from a yellow-flowering plant, artemisinin has anti-inflammatory benefits.

Black walnut hulls — are helpful in digestive and intestinal disorders and have antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic properties.

Probiotics — these high dose supplements of “good” bacteria can help bring the microbiome back into balance.

I also always test for and address subclinical H. pylori infections, as the overgrowth of clostridia is often linked to H. pylori infections.  You can read more about H. pylori here.

As always, I recommend you work with a qualified practitioner when addressing the underlying causes of health issues like autism, OCD, and PANS/PANDAS. It’s important to identify the root cause of these issues so that they can be addressed and treated appropriately.