How the Immune System Talks to the Nervous System

by Kelly Dorfman, MS, DDR Cofounder

It is summertime. For most parents of a child on the autistic spectrum or with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) who live east of the Rockies, life has gotten better. Approximately 60% of these children are experiencing improvements in behavior and function. When fall starts, some of these same youngsters will lose ground again, but to a lesser degree.

Parents blame teachers and schools for this downturn when the real culprit may be in their own backyards. Pollen, mold and grass activate the immune system sending signals to the nervous system that alter perception and behavior. When Dr. Doris Rapp first documented behavior and learning problems associated with allergy exposure, doctors criticized her observations for lacking scientific basis. Now over 20 years later, researchers have discovered the chemical pathways that explain this phenomenon.

During an allergic reaction, the immune system reacts aggressively to a substance, like pollen, that is inherently harmless. Until recently, this response has been narrowly defined. Immune cells called T helper cell type 2 (Th2), signaled other immune cells to produce IgE antibodies (IgE). IgE attaches to the surface of still other immune components called mast cells. Mast cells release histamine, an inflammatory substance that causes hives, itching and swelling.

Scientists now know that when Th2 cells communicate using messenger molecules called cytokines. Cytokines produced by Th2 have strange names like IL4, IL5 and IL 9. Cytokine information does not stay in the immune system. The nervous system also contains receptors for cytokines and will get the same messages. The result is a range of pathological nervous system responses from irritability to depression.

Dr. Marvin Boris, a New York based allergist, observed that half of the youngsters who regressed in the spring did not have obvious allergy symptoms. Chewing clothing, lost language skills and aggressive behavior are the reaction to pollen.

What to do? First, look through your child’s history and see if there is a pattern of behavior or skill deterioration every spring and or fall. While these are the times of year most associated with problems, some children follow unique patterns and may have problems other times. Identify your child’s rhythm, if there is one. Develop a strategy for prevention and an emergency plan, if that fails.

Prevention First

  1. Adjust fatty acids. Fats are the building blocks for many of the regulatory substances in the immune system. How the immune system performs is further influenced by the fat makeup of the cell membrane. Too many hydrogenated fats (found in packaged foods) or omega 6 fats (found in meat and dairy), encourage inflammation or suppress the system. Adding omega 3 fats (found in fish and flax oil) can help rebalance immune responses. (See New Developments Vol 3:3 or The Omega-3 Connection: The Groundbreaking Antidepression Diet and Brain Program by Stoll.
  2. Probiotics. Probiotics is a general term used to describe good bacteria that inhabit the body. New research suggests that probiotics can modulate Th2 function resulting in less severe allergic reactions. Since pesticides kill good bacteria along with the pests, most foods are no longer reliable sources of healthy bugs

    There are many excellent probiotic supplements on the market. Most good bacteria strains are heat sensitive and survive best when refrigerated. Look for a powder or pull apart capsule that contains at least 1 billion good bugs. Each brand promotes its own proprietary blend of bacterium or one "special" type such as. Lactobacillus G.G. Other excellent bugs include Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactobacillus acidophilus. They may sound like a bunch of bad Roman generals, but they are critical for keeping Th2 in balance. The particular mixture is not as important as finding what works well for the individual. Switch brands to expose the system to a variety of organisms. Start with ½ the dose (or less) listed on the label and work up slowly watching for gas and other intestinal changes.
  3. Avoid allergy foods. The immune system works on a load principal. If you are sensitive to milk and pollen, for example, the reaction to pollen may be worse if you are eating cheese. The body will be less reactive if sensitive foods are discovered and eliminated from the diet. If prevention does not help and your child is falling apart, contact your doctor. Though the reaction may not look like a typical allergy, anti-histamines or other allergy medicine may provide symptom relief. Some parents have also gotten temporary improvement giving potassium bicarbonate.

For more information on balancing immune function, read The Road to Immunity: How To Survive and Thrive in a Toxic World by Dr. Ken Bock or Superimmunity for Kids: What to Feed Your Children to Keep Them Healthy Now, and Prevent Disease in Their Future by Leo Galland.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 8, Number 4 - Summer, 2003]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.


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Page last modified: February 23, 2009
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