Autism Prevention: 7 Steps Prospective Parents Can Take to Reduce Risk

By Dr. Shawn VanWinkle

With the prevalence of autism on the rise in our society, much attention has been given to researching and understanding what causes it and what to do once a child becomes autistic. Much less attention has been applied to what potential parents can do to reduce their risk of having a child with autism. While there is no sure fire way to guarantee a healthy pregnancy and birth free of developmental delays such as autism or ADHD, there are many lifestyle changes that parents can take on to reduce their risk! In this article, we explore 7 areas that I believe are crucial to address.

1. Overall body and brain health

Most people consider the status of their body when they review their health, but very few consider how well their brain functioning. The brain quite possibly has the most important role in regards to overall health. It communicates with and coordinates function with every other system in your body. Ensuring your brain is in tip top shape is crucial for both parents prior to conception. If you have imbalances in brain function or and impaired ability for the two hemispheres of your brain to communicate with each other, it is possible to pass on these traits to your children. To assess the health of your brain, it is important to see a functional neurologist for an appropriate work up as they will be able to develop specific treatment protocols to help you improve and balance brain function. I also highly recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Robert Melillo’s recent book: “Autism: The Scientific Truth about Preventing, Diagnosing, and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorders – and What Parents Can Do Now.” This book is a must have for prospective parents as well as parents with children who have autism. Within the book you will find checklists that will help assess the health of your brain.

2. Reducing stress

It is no secret among researchers and health professionals alike that the ability of the body to handle stress has a significant role on our health. When we have a stress response, the adrenal glands will release a hormone called cortisol to prime the body to be able to respond to the stressful event. This is called your “fight or flight” mode. Once the event is over, the system should calm down allowing you to enter a “rest and digest” mode. Having an appropriate “fight or flight” response is crucial to being able to respond to our environment. It is equally important to return to the “rest and digest” status as this is the mode that allows us to heal and grow.  If the stress response becomes prolonged, or chronic it reduces our ability heal, can be harmful to the brain and sets up a pro-inflammatory state in the body and brain. You can have your stress response measured by testing your cortisol levels throughout the day. There are a few different ways to test this but I believe the most accurate way is through saliva. Ask your doctor to order an adrenal salivary index test to assess your stress response. A functional neurologist or functional nutritionist will be able to help you make lifestyle and dietary changes to allow you to better manage your stress

3. Reducing inflammation

High levels of inflammation are quite possibly the biggest risk factor that decreases overall health and your ability to have a healthy pregnancy and birth. Therefore it is very important to assess if you have more than normal levels of inflammation. Indicators suggesting inflammatory states include:

  • Overweight/obesity (larger waist than hip size)
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Allergies
  • Arthritis
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Skin problems
  • Digestive issues
  • Food, chemical and environment sensitivities
  • High blood pressure or cholesterol
  • Brain fog

Current research is helping us understand that the root cause of most autoimmune conditions is related to pro-inflammatory states in the brain and body. Check out this research article to read more about the link between autism, inflammation and autoimmunity! A comprehensive metabolic blood chemistry panel is a great way to assess biomarkers that provide clinical information about inflammation in your body. Working with someone trained in functional nutrition/medicine is a great way to assess the causes of the inflammation and how to develop strategies to reduce it.

4. Improving digestive health

If you experience gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea or constipation it is possible you are suffering from a leaky gut. This concept has received a great deal of attention with many health care professionals and nutritionists over the last few decades. This is no coincidence since we know there is significant relationship between digestive health and brain health. A leaky gut is typically caused by inflammatory states in the digestive system. This allows undigested food particles, toxins, bacteria or even parasites to enter the blood stream. These invaders will prime the immune system causing a pro-inflammatory state. Inflammation in the body or brain is no different that pouring sludge into the engine of your vehicle. It slows down and can severely impair overall performance. If it becomes prolonged or chronic, it can set the stage for an aggressive immune system that may start to attack the body’s own tissue. One of the best ways to improve digestive health is to complete an elimination/provocation dietary protocol. This process will remove possible inflammatory triggers and allow you to determine what those triggers are. In addition, it is often important to include supplements that repair the digestive barrier as well as brain based exercises that specifically improve the ability of the brain to send signals that heal the gut and improve its overall function. This is a process that should not be attempted without professional help. A functional neurologist and functional nutritionist will be able to successfully help guide you through this process.

5. Balancing sex hormones

High stress and pro-inflammatory states can alter levels of testosterone in women and estrogen in men. It has been suggested in some studies that higher levels of testosterone in women may be linked to a higher risk of having a child with autism. Appropriate levels of sex hormones in both men and women are also essential for good brain health. They have a crucial role in modifying the ability of your nervous system to coordinate communication efforts throughout the entire body. Therefore, it is important for both parents to have their hormones assessed prior to conception. There are a few ways to do this but again, I believe the best way to do this is through a saliva test. Hormones bind to proteins in order to travel through the blood but in order for the hormone to interact with a cell it must be unbound or “free fractioned.” Salivary hormone panels allow free fractioned hormones to be assessed. Make sure your doctor assesses at the very least your free fractioned estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. Once this has been determined, there are multiple strategies to help balance hormones for both men and women.

6. Maintaining stable blood sugar levels

If there is one thing I have learned in my professional career, it is that abnormal blood sugar levels and cellular responses can literally affect function of any system in the brain and body. A stable blood sugar system is essential for good health. The reason for this is that every cell in the body uses glucose (a form of sugar) to make energy for the cell to do work. If there is too much, not enough or abnormal responses of the cells to glucose there will surely be an impaired ability of the system to make energy to carry out the work it needs to do. A four step strategy to help stabilize blood sugar includes the following:

  • Eat breakfast within 30 to 60 minutes from waking up
  • Eat a meal or snack every 2 to 3 hours that you are awake
  • Eat healthy fat and protein and reduce carbohydrate (sugar) intake every time you eat
  • Drink plenty of water (body weight divided by 2 is minimum amount of ounces you should drink daily)


For some individuals, this may not be enough and they may need professional help along with appropriate supplements to help reset an abnormal blood sugar system. A functional nutritionist can help you assess what symptoms you may be having and develop an appropriate strategy to help correct it.

7. Increasing exercise and activity

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. It has become so prevalent that we are now seeing it in our children as well. With the increases in technology we are also seeing a lack of exercise and activity and increased sedentary lifestyles with children and adults alike “glued” to the television, iPad or cell phone. While this change may make us feel more connected with our friends and family, in reality we have become more disconnected with our environment and surroundings. Activity levels, exercise and live social engagements have all decreased. I believe this imbalance between interaction with technology and our environment are leading to significant changes in how our brains work and their ability to maintain health for our bodies. Of the many things a parent can do to reduce the risk of autism would be to increase exercise and activity level along with maintaining healthy weight.

If you are currently planning a pregnancy, the above strategies can be a very important part of improving your health prior to conception. There is no single strategy that has been proven to be effective for reducing risk of having a child with autism or ADHD. Therefore, assessing multiple areas of your health and developing strategies to improve them has the best chance of improving outcomes for a healthy conception, pregnancy and birth! If you already have a child with autism, working with a professional trained in functional neurology and nutrition can help to significantly improve the function and behavior of your child.

Copyright © 2014 Integrated Health Systems. All Rights Reserved. Dr. Shawn VanWinkle is an Associate Doctor at Integrated Health Systems. To learn more about how we can help you with your health goals visit our website at or email us at A free initial consultation can be scheduled by calling our office at 303-781-5617.