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Healing the Gut in Children with Special Needs: The Basics of Gut Health in Special Needs

Updated: May 25, 2023

A translucent man with visible skeleton surrounded by molecules and DNA
Gut health and DNA by Julian Tromeur

Children with special needs are unique blessings but as special needs parents we know that our kiddos can also come with unique challenges.

Whether addressing autism, Down syndrome, ADHD/ADD or anything in-between, making sure that a child with special needs has the foundation of a strong and healthy gut is essential for life long health.

Gut Health in Special Needs

Often, individuals with special needs have poor gut function: diarrhea, constipation, IBS, poor nutrient absorption, etc. This poor gut function has a direct link to behavioral issues and mental health disturbances like depression and melt downs.

Why is this?

The gut-brain axis.

The Gut-Brain Axis

A model of the half of a brain and a neuron

If you haven't heard of the gut-brain axis, then we need to talk! The gut-brain axis refers to the interconnectedness between the microbiome of the gut and the brain. It is a two way communication between the central nervous system (CNS), the nervous system of the gut (enteric nervous system or ENS), and the gut microbiome.

The gut microbiome is the diverse group of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live within the human digestive tract.

Now most of the bacteria that live within the gut should be beneficial. These bacteria perform functions that your body can't like the breakdown of fibers, creation of vitamins, and protect against harmful or pathogenic bacterial growth.

The communication between the gut and the brain is done via different pathways like hormones, the vagus nerve, and even the immune system (which 70% is located in the gut).

Studies have shown that kids with special needs have a compromised gut-brain axis which leads to disturbances in both physical and mental health.

For example, disturbances in the gut-brain axis have been linked to conditions like schizophrenia, obesity, anxiety, and autism.[1]

Studies even suggest that the diversity of the microbiome play a role in the progression and severity of symptoms of autism.[2]

So what can you do to help heal your child with special needs gut?

Heal The Gut

A yogurt, fruit, and coconut bowl

Healing the gut takes time, effort, and a personalized approach especially in conditions like autism and Down syndrome.

Starting with a healthy diet and lifestyle can help improve gut health.


Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help support a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Studies suggest that people with autism have an altered gut microbiome with antibiotic and probiotic therapies alleviating symptoms of autism to varying degrees.[3] A probiotic supplement may help replenish beneficial bacteria, restrict harmful bacteria, and create a more diverse gut microbiome. Diverse gut microbiomes are linked not only with gut health but overall health.


Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that act as fuel for beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics help good bacteria or probiotics to flourishing the gut. As beneficial bacteria grow, there is less fuel for harmful bacteria and they die off creating a healthier microbiome. Eating foods rich in prebiotics like avocados, onions, garlic, and bananas may help to cultivate a healthier gut microbiome.

Vitamin D

Research links low vitamin D to neurodevelopmental disorders like autism. I've talked about vitamin D many times on this blog for good reasons. Vitamin D acts as a steroid hormone and plays a role in everything from healthy bones to quality sleep. Vitamin D plays a role in gut health by regulating the absorption of minerals like calcium and magnesium.[4].

Specific Diets

Diets specific to healing the gut in kiddos with special needs range from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and GFDF (Gluten Free Dairy Free Diet) to the Ketogenic Diet. Many of these diets are tailored to the needs of the child and research indicates that many of these diets can be therapeutic for gut health.

When addressing concerning symptoms in your child with special needs, you must first heal the gut. After all, you really are what you eat.

Do you need help with your child with special needs? Get in touch to learn how a naturopathic approach can help your child with special needs reducing behaviors and experience less illness.

Dr. Candace Mathers, naturopathic doctor in Chicago suburbs, woman in watermelon dress  holding a piece of watermelon
I'm Dr. Candace Mathers, a naturopathic doctor who wants you to get healthy so that you can be your best you! I'm a Christian, mom, and lover of all things family friendly fun!


  1. Cryan JF, O'Riordan KJ, Cowan CSM, et al. The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Physiol Rev. 2019;99(4):1877-2013. doi:10.1152/physrev.00018.2018

  2. Chidambaram SB, Tuladhar S, Bhat A, et al. Autism and Gut-Brain Axis: Role of Probiotics. Adv Neurobiol. 2020;24:587-600. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-30402-7_21

  3. Kang DW, Adams JB, Gregory AC, et al. Microbiota Transfer Therapy alters gut ecosystem and improves gastrointestinal and autism symptoms: an open-label study. Microbiome. 2017;5(1):10. Published 2017 Jan 23. doi:10.1186/s40168-016-0225-7

  4. Day AS, Bener A, Tewfik I, Vajro P, Zughaier SM. Editorial: The Role of Vitamin D in Gut Health and Disease in Children. Front Public Health. 2022;10:912773. Published 2022 May 11. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2022.912773

  5. Mehra A, Arora G, Sahni G, et al. Gut microbiota and Autism Spectrum Disorder: From pathogenesis to potential therapeutic perspectives. J Tradit Complement Med. 2022;13(2):135-149. Published 2022 Mar 8. doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2022.03.001

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