Herbal Therapies for Autism

Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
passionflower extract

One of many alternative treatments for autism, herbal therapies are controversial in the medical community. However, many people report improvement in some of the hallmark symptoms of autism spectrum disorders due to these herbal treatments. If you're considering this type of treatment for yourself or your child, it's important to learn as much as possible about the efficacy and potential drug interactions.

Five Supplements and Herbal Remedies for Autism

Melatonin Supplements

According to Autism Speaks, melatonin is a supplement that is likely effective for children with autism who struggle with sleep. Since sleep disturbances can be a major challenge for families dealing with ASD, melatonin supplements could be a significant help. It's also possible that children's behavior and communication abilities would improve as an indirect result of using the medication to get regular sleep.

However, the NIH also warns that melatonin is possibly unsafe for use in children and warns that it should not be used by children. It can interfere with development, particularly during adolescence. If your child has a severe sleep problem associated with autism, talk to your doctor about whether melatonin is worth the risk.

There are several drug interactions with melatonin. Talk to your doctor if you (or your child) are taking any other herbal, prescription, or over-the-counter medications before trying melatonin.

Ginger Root

Anecdotally, parents report that ginger root can help with the symptoms of autism, although there aren't any studies that back up this assertion. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, ginger can be effective in treating gastrointestinal complaints. Since a subset of people with autism also struggle with gastrointestinal problems, controlling these symptoms with ginger may make it easier for them to focus on interactions and behavior.

Ginger is not safe for children under the age of two years, but older kids and adults can try this therapy with the assistance of a doctor. It's also important to keep in mind that ginger interferes with several prescription medications, especially blood thinners, blood pressure medications, and diabetes treatments.

Gingko Leaf

According to Integrative Medicine for Children by May Loo, gingko leaf is a controversial treatment for people with autism and cognitive impairment. Estimated rates of cognitive impairment vary depending on the study, but researchers believe that a subset of people with autism also have an IQ below 70. Improving the cognitive functioning of these individuals could help reduce symptoms of autism; however, there have been very few studies regarding gingko leaf and autism.

Loo also cautions that the side effects of gingko leaf, which can include excessive bleeding, seizures, muscle weakness, headaches, and stomach complaints, make it unsafe to use with children. Gingko leaf can interfere with a number of prescription drugs including seizure-prevention medications, blood thinners, diabetes medications, and others. It can also cause a negative interaction with a number of other herbal supplements, like ginger root, saw palmetto, and others.

St. John's Wort

St. John's Wort is a popular herbal supplement that is typically used to treat depression and mood disorders and is sometimes used as an alternative treatment for autistic symptoms. A study from the Regional Hospital of Bolzano, Italy found that the supplement did not improve symptoms of autism significantly. The study did find that St. John's Wort slightly reduced irritability in some patients.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, St. John's Wort has few side effects. These can include digestive problems, sunlight sensitivity, fatigue, and headaches. Additionally, St. John's Wort has a number of drug interactions, including oral contraceptives, blood thinners, immune suppressants, depression medications, and others.

St. John's Wort can also increase the symptoms of ADHD, which affects a subset of people with autism.

Passionflower Extract

Many herbal products that purport to treat autism also include passionflower extract. There are not scientific studies that support the use of passionflower extract for pervasive developmental disorders; however, it may help with sleep, according to a study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research. Since a subset of people with autism struggle with sleep, this could be helpful.

The University of Maryland Medical Center cautions against giving passionflower extract to children, since the safety of this herbal remedy hasn't been tested with younger patients. There are no documented side effects of this treatment; however, it can interact with a number of medications, including blood thinners, sedatives, and anti-depressants.

Before You Try Any Herbal Remedy

Before you experiment with any type of herbal treatment for ASD, it's essential that you speak with your doctor. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, mixing prescription medications and herbal treatments can result in a number of harmful drug interactions. Your doctor can help you decide if an herbal supplement could result in a dangerous interaction.

It's also essential that you continue traditional treatments, like occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy, even if you decide to try an herbal treatment. Discontinuing these other therapies can cause regression of skills and stall progress during important developmental windows.

Herbal Therapies for Autism