October 25, 2016

Recent research shows promise for the use of herbal remedies to treat autism. A recent study conducted in Japan examined the effects of yokukansan on the behavior of children with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), which is one of the autism spectrum disorders. In this study, 20 children and teenagers aged 6 to 17 with diagnoses of PDD were administered 2.5 to 7.5 grams of yokukansan daily over a 12 week period. The investigators evaluated the subjects’ behavior using the Clinical Global Impressions-Improvement of Illness Scale, the Children’s Global Assessment Score, and the Aberrant Behavior Checklist. The results of this study showed that the subjects’ symptoms of irritation and agitation improved significantly after 8 weeks, while symptoms of hyperactivity improved after 12 weeks.

Yokukansan is a mixture of seven traditional Japanese herbs that are used for a variety of medical conditions, including gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and inflammation, as well as other conditions. The herbs included in the yokukansan mixture are Atractylodes lancea rhizome (cāng zhú), Poria sclerotium (a Chinese mushroom), Cnidium rhizome, Uncaria (cat’s claw), Angelica root, Bupleurum root, and Glycyrrhiza (licorice).

Herbal remedies have been utilized for years by alternative medicine practitioners to lessen the symptoms of autism. Subhuti Dharmananda, PhD, Director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Oregon, reports that Chinese medical texts describe a condition involving disturbance in mental development, apathy, and tardiness of speaking. The texts recommend treatment for this condition using an herbal formula consisting of ginseng, ophiopogon, acorus, tang-kuei, polygala, frankincense, cnidium, and cinnabar.

The Pacific College of Oriental Medicine cites Diana Oliver’s book “A Naturopathic Perspective for the Treatment of Children within the Autistic Spectrum,” as stating that herbal remedies for autism can help restore endocrine and digestive activities and eliminate toxins without harmful side effects. This book recommends several types of herbs, including herbs that affect digestive function such as gentian, globe artichoke, dandelion root, meadowsweet, calendula, chamomile, marshmallow root, slippery elm, golden seal, licorice, fennel, chamomile and crampbark. The book also recommends calendula and burdock for detoxification.

Other practitioners also recommend certain herbs to aid the function of the digestive tract in the treatment of autism. A. Minocha, M.D., author of the Guide to Alternative Medicine and the Digestive System, recommends turmeric for its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. Turmeric should be used as a part of a regimen to correct intestinal dysfunction. Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, DN-C, RH, writer for The Autism File, reports that herbal remedies can achieve good results in the treatment of autism by enhancing digestion, brain circulation, and neuron health, as well as protecting the nervous system from damage. Herbs also act to detoxify body systems as well as regulate allergies and sensory systems. Herbs recommended include ginger root, astragalus, ginkgo leaf, gotu kola leaf, and calamus root.

The Japanese study on yokukansan is one of very few studies published on the effects of herbal remedies on autism. While some practitioners may recommend the use of herbal remedies, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that alternative treatments for autism are controversial and may be potentially dangerous. Prior to starting any herbal or alternative treatment, a physician should be consulted.

About the author 

Janet Meydam

Janet Meydam holds a B.S. degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and an M.S. degree in Occupational Therapy from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has worked in healthcare and education settings for 25 years and writes extensively about people who have disabilities.

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