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How Functional Medicine may be able to Help with Autism and ADHD?

Read below how Functional Medicine may help with Autism and ADHD

Introduction to Autism and ADHD

Autism, also known as autistic spectrum disorder or ASD, refers to a set of behavioural characteristics including problems with social interaction and communication alongside stereotypical or repetitive behaviour and actions. Each person will have a different combination of behaviours. Symptoms typically start early in childhood, with the first sign parents often noticing being a lack of eye contact.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD is characterised by difficulty concentrating, impulsive behaviour, frustration, restlessness and anger.

Science has found people with autism and ADHD have imbalances in brain chemicals helping their nerve cells communicate. For example, brain chemicals may not be removed once they’ve done their job of firing a nerve cell, meaning nerve cells are constantly stimulated. Researchers also believe the brains of some sufferers have extra connections between nerve cells which should have been cleared out by the brain’s own waste disposal system.

Incidence of Autism and ADHD

The National Autistic Society estimates around 1% of the UK population are affected by ASD. It’s around six times more common in boys, and its incidence is on the rise. ADHD is believed to affect around 5% of children globally.

Causes of Autism

No one knows exactly what causes autism, although increasing rates suggest environmental factors play a role in its development, alongside nutritional and lifestyle factors, all determining whether genetic tendencies are manifested.

Several factors can combine to increase the likelihood a child will suffer from ASD or ADHD.

  • Microbiome Imbalance

Parents of children with ASD/ADHD often notice their child suffers from gastrointestinal problems, and these children tend to have fewer species of bacteria in their guts. The gut and brain are closely connected by millions of nerves.1,2

Research in animals has revealed specific types of gut bacteria are linked to behavioural changes. When bacteria from people with autism were transplanted into mice, the animals began to display behaviour consistent with autism such as socialising less.3

  • Toxins

Autistic children and those with ADHD often have accumulations of lead and mercury in their bodies. These can cause their cells’ mitochondria, their energy-producing factories, to become less efficient at producing energy for cells to use.4

People with autism and ADHD may be less efficient at detoxifying harmful substances because of a genetic tendency or imbalances in the gut microbiome. This makes them more vulnerable to the damaging effect of environmental toxins.

  • Nutritional Deficiencies

Deficiencies in nutrients needed for brain health like B vitamins, Omega 3 fats, zinc, magnesium and selenium are common. These are often amplified by the tendency for autistic people to eat a narrow range of foods, avoiding certain textures.5

  • Food Sensitivities

Children with ASD and ADHD frequently suffer from food sensitivities, especially to gluten and dairy. In some cases, opioid-like molecules are released when gluten and dairy foods are digested, affecting brain chemistry.

Food sensitivities are often caused by the digestive lining becoming too leaky, allowing toxins, bacteria and incompletely digested particles of food through into the bloodstream. A leaky gut also encourages autoimmune issues. It’s believed an attack by the immune system on brain cells, causing inflammation, could be a factor in some cases of autism.6

  • Oxidative Stress

The mitochondria in each cell produce energy, and the brain needs a lot of energy to function well.  These structures are especially susceptible to oxidative stress, hindering energy production.7,8


Conventional diagnosis involves finding out whether the child’s behaviour meets a set of criteria for autism or ADHD.

Conventional Treatment

Can include cognitive behavioural therapy, medication such as stimulants to control impulsive behaviour, antipsychotics, mood stabilisers, sedatives and antidepressants.

Functional Testing

The condition of the gut microbiome is key in autism, so testing can diagnose any imbalances in gut bacteria as well as leaky gut.

Functional testing can also look at toxic load, nutritional status, food sensitivities, mitochondrial function and genetic susceptibility to poor detoxification.9

Functional Medicine Approach to Autism and ADHD

Because autism is connected with so many potential imbalances in the body, a whole-body approach is best.

Restoring a healthy gut environment will be the starting point for therapy while correcting nutritional deficiencies, supporting detoxification, and avoiding sources of toxins from the environment, food and water.10


  1. Li H, Liu C, Huang S, Wang X, Cao M, Gu T, Ou X, Pan S, Lin Z, Wang X, Zhu Y, Jing J. Multi-omics analyses demonstrate the modulating role of gut microbiota on the associations of unbalanced dietary intake with gastrointestinal symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorder. Gut Microbes. 2023 Dec;15(2):2281350. doi: 10.1080/19490976.2023.2281350. Epub 2023 Nov 27. PMID: 38010793.
  2. He J, Gong X, Hu B, Lin L, Lin X, Gong W, Zhang B, Cao M, Xu Y, Xia R, Zheng G, Wu S, Zhang Y. Altered Gut Microbiota and Short-chain Fatty Acids in Chinese Children with Constipated Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sci Rep. 2023 Nov 4;13(1):19103. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-46566-2. PMID: 37925571; PMCID: PMC10625580.
  3. Sharon G, Cruz NJ, Kang DW, Gandal MJ, Wang B, Kim YM, Zink EM, Casey CP, Taylor BC, Lane CJ, Bramer LM, Isern NG, Hoyt DW, Noecker C, Sweredoski MJ, Moradian A, Borenstein E, Jansson JK, Knight R, Metz TO, Lois C, Geschwind DH, Krajmalnik-Brown R, Mazmanian SK. Human Gut Microbiota from Autism Spectrum Disorder Promote Behavioral Symptoms in Mice. Cell. 2019 May 30;177(6):1600-1618.e17. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.05.004. PMID: 31150625; PMCID: PMC6993574.
  4. Ding M, Shi S, Qie S, Li J, Xi X. Association between heavy metals exposure (cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury) and child autistic disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Front Pediatr. 2023 Jul 4;11:1169733. doi: 10.3389/fped.2023.1169733. PMID: 37469682; PMCID: PMC10353844.
  5. Indika NR, Frye RE, Rossignol DA, Owens SC, Senarathne UD, Grabrucker AM, Perera R, Engelen MPKJ, Deutz NEP. The Rationale for Vitamin, Mineral, and Cofactor Treatment in the Precision Medical Care of Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Pers Med. 2023 Jan 29;13(2):252. doi: 10.3390/jpm13020252. PMID: 36836486; PMCID: PMC9964499.
  6. Ly V, Bottelier M, Hoekstra PJ, Arias Vasquez A, Buitelaar JK, Rommelse NN. Elimination diets’ efficacy and mechanisms in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2017 Sep;26(9):1067-1079. doi: 10.1007/s00787-017-0959-1. Epub 2017 Feb 11. PMID: 28190137; PMCID: PMC5591346.
  7. Smith AM, Donley ELR, Ney DM, Amaral DG, Burrier RE, Natowicz MR. Metabolomic biomarkers in autism: identification of complex dysregulations of cellular bioenergetics. Front Psychiatry. 2023 Oct 2;14:1249578. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2023.1249578. PMID: 37928922; PMCID: PMC10622772.
  8. Bjørklund G, Meguid NA, El-Bana MA, Tinkov AA, Saad K, Dadar M, Hemimi M, Skalny AV, Hosnedlová B, Kizek R, Osredkar J, Urbina MA, Fabjan T, El-Houfey AA, Kałużna-Czaplińska J, Gątarek P, Chirumbolo S. Oxidative Stress in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Mol Neurobiol. 2020 May;57(5):2314-2332. doi: 10.1007/s12035-019-01742-2. Epub 2020 Feb 5. PMID: 32026227.
  9. Santos JX, Rasga C, Marques AR, Martiniano H, Asif M, Vilela J, Oliveira G, Sousa L, Nunes A, Vicente AM. A Role for Gene-Environment Interactions in Autism Spectrum Disorder Is Supported by Variants in Genes Regulating the Effects of Exposure to Xenobiotics. Front Neurosci. 2022 May 19;16:862315. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2022.862315. PMID: 35663546; PMCID: PMC9161282.
  10. Ristori MV, Quagliariello A, Reddel S, Ianiro G, Vicari S, Gasbarrini A, Putignani L. Autism, Gastrointestinal Symptoms and Modulation of Gut Microbiota by Nutritional Interventions. Nutrients. 2019 Nov 18;11(11):2812. doi: 10.3390/nu11112812. PMID: 31752095; PMCID: PMC6893818.

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