Preconception: Reflections from an Autism Mom

Jennifer Elrod, mother of a toddler boy who is in the process of recovering from mild autistic symptoms, speech delay and gross motor delay, tells us about the importance of preconception in this blog post.

As the mother of a toddler who has developmental delays, symptoms of autism, and signs of mitochondrial dysfunction, when I look back at the year before I became pregnant, I have a list of “I wish I had dones” and “I wish I had knowns”. Many of the items on those lists can probably be dismissed. But even after weeding out the less rational fears and doubts, a few things remain. These remaining items can be dismissed on the basis of “don’t feel guilty” or “move forward”. But they can’t be dismissed on logical grounds as opposed to psychological grounds.

My goal in looking back is to help somebody else. I have seen the women in the online forums asking other women what they wish they had known. This is for them. I can’t prove that any of these things contributed to Wyatt’s issues. But all of these things fall under the category of having a no-brainer risk benefit ratio.

In terms of preconception, it is riskier not to take the preventive measures I wish I had taken, than it is to do these things.

Mercury Amalgam Dental Fillings

My first mistake: I got my teeth cleaned, but I didn’t have my mercury amalgam dental fillings removed. The first thing was recommended in the guides I read. The second thing was not. I have eight fillings. I have a vague memory of one of them chipping off when I was in my teens. Removing these dental fillings would have been a better use of my money than buying a crib that was never used at all during my son’s first year of life – other than as a very expensive storage area for toys and clothes.

The time to get fillings removed is prior to conception. That gives the body time to get rid of the mercury that will be in circulation for a while after the removal. The removal itself will stir up more mercury temporarily. Pregnancy is not to the time to do it, but a pregnant woman can still take extra selenium, which binds with mercury.

Group B Strep

I did not learn until my third trimester that I had Group B Strep and that I would require an antibiotic IV to constantly drip into my blood throughout my thirty-six hour labor. I did not learn until Wyatt was a toddler just what the implications of my gut dysbiosis were. It meant that Wyatt, when he passed through my birth canal, got his sterile newborn gut colonized with whatever opportunistic pathogens the antibiotics did not kill. They had thirty-six hours to spread and fill the emtpy niches that were left in my gut.

I’m certain that Candida albicans was one of those pathogens. Other possibilities include Clostridia and other nasties that need the big guns to kill them and only flourish more when a penicillin-type antibiotic kills off their competitors in the gut.

Candida Albicans

Candida albicans, a yeast that is in everybody’s gut but that can overgrow and assume a fungal form under the right conditions, has come to light as a huge problem for both Wyatt and myself. I have learned that it is responsible for the agony I felt holding still waiting for him to fall asleep at my breast when he was a baby. He would awaken if I moved, but I felt like I had itches and restless energies in my arms and legs, and I could temporarily alleviate these feelings by moving. Sometimes after waiting for twenty minutes, I would twitch, and he would fuss, and I would have to start the process all over again. And I’d have to hold still even longer. But it didn’t even begin there.

That feeling goes way back to my first trimester of pregnancy, when I would have agonizing restless leg syndrome at my desk every afternoon for a while after eating lunch. Whenever those sensations come back, I know my Candida is getting out of the control again.

Since then, I have learned many things about Candida. Now I know that progesterone, which increases several-fold during the first trimester, also feeds Candida. Now I know that when Wyatt is having a yeast flare, he is wakeful at night, but after his yeast is back under control, he sleeps better than he ever did in his life.

Candida is not the only factor I have learned affects his sleep, but it is up there in the top five factors. Now I know that when Wyatt is having a yeast flare, he stares into space a lot and acts nearly deaf.

I look back on the days and nights of his napping and sleeping patterns of babyhood, when his best sleep habits were during his first three weeks of life, and he only got worse as he got older, and I wonder how much easier and more fun it all could have been if I had gotten my gut dysbiosis under control before I conceived him.

I look back on the months of trying to teach him signs, before he could talk, and the way he would just stare blankly when I tried to prompt him. I wonder how much faster he could have learned to sign.

Healing Gut Dysbiosis

What would I have done to heal my gut and make my birth canal a more hospitable place for my infant to pass through on his way out?  I would have gone on a diet such as Specific Carbohydrate Diet, GAPS diet or Body Ecology Diet. I would have consumed yogurt, kefir and kombucha. I would have taken anti-fungals such as grapefruit seed oil or caprylic acid.  I would have asked my OB/gyn for a Group B Strep test before conception.

Restoring the inner ecosystem of the gut to optimal health is a subject too large for this article, but the links I have provided to the three diets I mention are a good place to begin research.

Folic Acid vs. Folinic Acid

So, what else would I have done, besides healing my gut of its dysbiosis and removing my mercury amalgam dental fillings? I would have taken folinic acid, a more bio-available form of  folic acid. Not everybody’s body makes sufficient quantities of the enzyme needed to convert folic acid into its active forms.

I try almost every supplement I give Wyatt before I give it to him, and now I know that I am actually mildly depressed when I do not take folinic acid. I was used to feeling that way for so long that I did not even realize I felt that way, until I felt better.  Wyatt, in turn, has fixations on lights and lacks interest in most toys, without this supplement.

If it is true of both of us now that we do better on a folinic acid supplement, what was true of my body while I was pregnant and before I conceived? I suspect that the folic acid I took during that time did not do Wyatt any good. It seems to me that it is safer for women to take folinic acid rather than folic acid because most have no clue if their bodies are unable to properly utilize folic acid.

Iron Levels

I would also have had my iron levels checked before conception, and unless they were very high above the borderline, I would have taken measures to get them up. Even if they were okay, if they were only marginal, I would have found a good way to supplement. I probably would have eaten organic liver once a week or something like that, since an iron supplement would most likely have worked at cross-purposes to my other concern of healing my gut.

My iron was low during my third trimester, and Wyatt’s iron levels in turn were low when he was ten months old. I gave him iron drops, only to learn later that he has mitochondrial dysfunction and that iron supplements damage the mitochondria. That’s in addition to iron feeding pathogenic forms of bacteria in the gut. While he was on the iron drops, he had frequent and incredibly smelly farts, and his bowel movements contained lots of black flecks that were metallic looking and difficult to wipe off his skin.

Genetic Counseling

Last of all, I would have gotten some genetic testing done. I strongly suspect that Wyatt has a fatty acid oxidation disorder (FOD), and this is something that can be screened for in newborns.

He is not yet diagnosed, but he has all the signs of it. He has low tone and low energy that both worsen on a diet that is too high in fat and too low in carbs. FOD individuals have trouble metabolizing fat. Their bodies do not naturally make enough carnitine to overcome their genetic defect, but a carnitine supplement can help them use fat for energy and dispose of toxic fat metabolites that otherwise accumulate.

FOD babies are an exception to “breast is best” at least during their first few days of life, before the milk comes in. They do better if they get formula, in addition to colostrum, until the milk comes in. And if they receive a carnitine supplement from babyhood, they can avoid developmental delays.

Genetic testing could have alerted me if both my husband and I are carriers of the recessive gene for FOD. Failing that, I could have had a newborn screening done for FOD. FODs are rare, but there are other genetic tests and genetic counseling that can be done. Genetic counseling is underutilized.

Some people just need to take more of certain nutrients to overcome their genetic susceptibilities, and sometimes it’s possible to test for that sort of thing. Chances are that if I had taken the preventive measures I just sketched out, that Wyatt might still have some issues, but they would not be as bad. As the infamous saying goes, genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. For babies, the environment starts in their mothers’ bodies, before they are ever conceived.

If you don’t do the things I recommend, it does not mean that your child will have a neurological disorder, a developmental delay, or other problem. But what can it hurt? If nothing else, you will be healthier, and you could end up with an easier baby who hits developmental milestones faster.

Of course, I am only speaking from my own experience, and you should do your own research and consult with other women to come up for the best plan for you as an individual. I am sure that I have left out things about preconception that I did not experience but other mothers have.