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How is the Immune System Related to Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Updated: Sep 19, 2018

Let’s continue our series covering Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We have covered the concept of allostatic load and how gastrointestinal dysfunction, nutrient deficiencies and inflammation play a role in this disorder. While these articles were directed at ASD specifically, they apply to all of us generally. Everyone deals with allostatic load on a daily basis and when the load becomes too great, there is a breakdown in our body somewhere and there is increased inflammation. Also, all of our body systems are intertwined and affect one another no matter what condition or issue we are facing.

On the Prowl

Image from Pubmed Health [1]

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a system in our body that was always on guard and looking out for what is best for us? Luckily, our immune system is always on the prowl, looking for foreign invaders/antigens and protecting us from them. Most of the immune system is located around our gastrointestinal tract. The thymus gland, lymphatic system/lymph nodes and spleen are also a part of our immune system. Also, let’s not forget that our skin and mucus membranes also act as a protective barrier for us. [1]

B Cells and their role in the immunity. [2]

White Blood Cells are the primary workers for the immune system and can be broken down into two types; T cells and B cells. The T cells control our immediate response to an invader. When a foreign invader is detected, they fight to neutralize that virus, bacteria, etc. The B cells, on the other hand, control our long term response to an invader. They will create antibodies against that antigen. The antibodies will stick to that antigen. This helps to neutralize that antigen so that it cannot do any damage. This process also marks that antigen to be disposed of by the immune system.

The immune system does not only protect us from foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. It also protects us from our own cells. Our cells have to be replaced and this is accomplished through mitosis. Mitosis produces two “daughter” cells that are identical to the “mother” cell. [3] However, sometimes mutations occur in the “daughter” cells that are not advantageous for us. In this case, apoptosis or programmed cell death occurs and is carried out by our immune system. This plays an important role in controlling our immune response and any dysfunction in this process could lead to an autoimmune disease or immunodeficiency. [4] Here we see that is in imperative for our immune system to be in the proper balance. Too much can be just as bad as not enough!

The Immune System and the Brain in Regards to ASD

Inflammation and the Blood Brain Barrier [6]

Our brain also has cells involved in our immune system. These cells include the microglial cells. The microglial cells have several different functions during brain development and play a role in innate immunity or natural immunity. [5] (Innate immunity is the type of immunity that is naturally there without prior exposure to an antigen.) There is also a blood brain barrier (BBB) that is designed to keep foreign invaders out of our brain and central nervous system. This BBB can be disrupted by lipopolysaccharides and cytokines. [7]

Cytokines are produced by the immune system, including the microglial cells. If this system is overactive, it could affect the BBB and lead to a host of neurological symptoms. Lipopolysaccharides are also referred to as endotoxins and they can circulate around our bodies in our blood stream due to intestinal permeability (aka Leaky Gut). Intestinal permeability is an issue that is more prevalent in children with ASD and their relatives. [8] Other key abnormalities have been found regarding the immune system and/or inflammation in children with ASD. These include cytokine abnormalities, autoantibodies to brain tissue, antibodies to food, genetic mutations that affect immune system function and several others. [9]

Nutrition and the Immune System

Nutrition plays a role in the optimal functioning of our immune system. Several different nutrients are required. These include zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin C and vitamin E. Also, protein plays a big part. If protein malnutrition is present, it can impair cell-mediated immunity and cytokine production. [11]

Here again we see the overlap of multiple body systems in the expression of different conditions. For example, in children with ASD, we often see increased intestinal permeability. This leads to the release of lipopolysaccharides into our blood which initiates an immune response. This also creates inflammation in our digestive tract that affects digestion and disrupts the gut microbiome. The lipopolysaccharides can affect the blood brain barrier leading to neuroinflammation. The inflammation in the digestive tract can also lead to neuroinflammation due to the gut-brain connection. Inflammation is a natural part of healing and needs to be in the proper balance just like our immune system. Again, too much inflammation can be just as bad as not enough!

The disruption in the gut microbiome, which is common in those with ASD, can lead to nutrient deficiencies. The bacteria in our gut are needed to supply us with many essential nutrients, especially B vitamins. [12] It is also common to find issues with methylation (to be discussed in a future article) in people with ASD due to a genetic polymorphisms in genes like MTHFR and COMT. [13] B vitamins play a role in the entire methylation process. As you begin to piece this together, it almost seems like the different issues feed into each other to perpetuate the dysfunction and issues.

Should I Take A Lot of Supplements?

So, should you start supplementing with all of these nutrients and vitamins? Probably not. It is unlikely that your child with ASD or the person you know with ASD is deficient in each nutrient. While supplementation with certain nutrients has been shown to be effective in decreasing behavioral issues, improving communication, sociability and sensory/cognitive awareness [14], we still need to know what are the main issues at play with that particular persons presentation. If we don’t address those main issues, we will never see the results we desire.

If you would like to get started on your own personal health journey, please go to my website,, and sign up for a free 15 minute consultation to ask questions and see if we would work well together or dive right in and schedule your 60 minute Initial Evaluation. The Initial Evaluation and the free consultation can be performed in person or via phone/skype. I look forward to hearing from you and working together to accomplish your goals.


This article is for educational use only. Nothing contained in this article should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This article does not constitute the practice of any medical, nursing or other professional health care advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions regarding personal health or medical conditions. Never disregard, avoid or delay in obtaining medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health care provider because of something you have read in this article. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, you should contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and are experiencing a medical emergency, you should dial 911 or call for emergency medical help on the nearest telephone.



  2. Shimabukuro-Vornhagen, A., Hallek, M. J., Storb, R. F., & von Bergwelt-Baildon, M. S. (2009). The role of B cells in the pathogenesis of graft-versus-host disease. Blood, 114(24), 4919–4927. Accessed June 05, 2018.


  4. Ekert PG, Vaux DL. Apoptosis and the immune system. Br Med Bull.1997;53(3):591–603.

  5. Takano T. Role of Microglia in Autism: Recent Advances. Dev Neurosci 2015;37:195–202.

  6. Quan, N. (2008). Immune-To-Brain Signaling: How Important are the Blood–Brain Barrier-independent Pathways? Molecular Neurobiology, 37(2–3), 142–152.

  7. Banks WA, Erickson MA. The blood-brain barrier and immune function and dysfunction. Neurobiol Dis. 2010 Jan;37(1):26–32. doi: 10.1016/j.nbd.2009.07.031. Epub 2009 Aug 5.

  8. de Magistris, L., Familiari, V., Pascotto, A., Sapone, A., Frolli, A., Iardino, P., Carteni, M., De Rosa, M., Francavilla, R., Riegler, G., Militerni, R., and Bravaccio, C. Alterations of the intestinal barrier in patients with autism spectrum disorders and in their first-degree relatives. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2010 Oct;51(4):418–24. doi: 10.1097/MPG.0b013e3181dcc4a5.

  9. Rossignol, D. A., & Frye, R. E. (2012). A review of research trends in physiological abnormalities in autism spectrum disorders: immune dysregulation, inflammation, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction and environmental toxicant exposures. Molecular Psychiatry, 17(4), 389–401.

  10. Goines, P., & Van de Water, J. (2010). The Immune System’s Role in the Biology of Autism. Current Opinion in Neurology, 23(2), 111–117.

  11. R K Chandra; Nutrition and the immune system: an introduction, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 66, Issue 2, 1 August 1997, Pages 460S–463S,

  12. Magnúsdóttir, S., Ravcheev, D., de Crécy-Lagard, V., & Thiele, I. (2015). Systematic genome assessment of B-vitamin biosynthesis suggests co-operation among gut microbes. Frontiers in Genetics, 6, 148.

  13. Kennedy, D. O. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy — A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68.

  14. Rebecca RuiPing Xia.The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.Mar 2011. t

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