Over the years, I’ve improved my own health tremendously with information gleaned while healing my daughter’s autoimmune conditions, autism, and PANS. From the gluten free diet, to treating adrenals, to supplements to boost my mood on the cloudiest of days, I owe it all to her.
This time however, it’s knowledge from my own journey that’s helping her and I hope may be useful to you too!
I’ve been using herbs that reduce androgens to stop hormonal skin blemishes for the last year. They’ve helped so miraculously that I recently wrote an article about them: 3 Herbs that cleared my skin completely when nothing else worked. After sharing it, people began to ask if the same herbs could be used for children.
The questions got me thinking… could they? And what if they might have benefits far beyond hormonal acne?
What if I gave them to my daughter, who didn’t need them for her skin, perhaps as a way to treat autism and PANS?
I knew of the use of hormone suppressing (GnRH agonist) drugs being used for children with autism, but the risks and side effects made them something I dismissed from consideration years ago.
Safe and effective herbs however, to potentially take the edge off some of the excess androgens, was a very enticing option!
In this article, I will first explain why researchers believe the number of males with various cognitive developmental disorders so significantly outnumber females. Then, I will present some herbs that can be used to treat the conditions. And finally I’ll share the incredible results we’ve seen!
Male prevalence in neurodevelopmental disorders
Ratio of affected Males : Females
- Autism 4 : 1
- Aspergers 10 : 1 [R]
- PANS 2.6-4.7 : 1 [R]
- ADHD 3-16 : 1 [R]
- Tourette’s syndrome 4 : 1 [R]
- Childhood onset OCD 3 : 1 [R]
As I searched to answer why the male prevalence is so dramatic, I uncovered substantial amounts of scientific research. Countless studies explaining both the sex differences in these disorders and the reasons why elevated pre and postnatal androgens are a suspected culprit.
Much of the research is from the autism community, but you will see how it’s applicable to ADHD, OCD, brain development issues, and neuroinflammation / PANS, so please don’t leave yet if your child doesn’t have classic autism.
Male dominant traits in autism spectrum disorders
ASD has been hypothesized to be an exaggeration of the typically male traits of low-empathizing and high-systemizing behaviors. The ‘Extreme male brain‘ theory of Autism as it’s somewhat politically incorrectly called, has been analyzed and supported by many research papers such as, The Systemizing Quotient.
The theory is that females typically have a stronger drive to empathize and respond to another person’s emotions and thoughts, while males generally have a stronger drive to systemize, analyze, and construct certain rule-based systems and many people with ASD’s tend to exude higher male brain characteristics.
Elevated androgen levels in spectrum disorders
A large number of studies have found elevated androgens associated with autism spectrum disorders. A small sampling of them include:
- A study of children of both sexes aged 3-4 and 7-9 found markedly increased levels of androgens in children with ASD, indicative of precocious/ early puberty. [R]
- A study found serum androstenedione levels significantly elevated in individuals diagnosed with ASD. Androstenedione is converted into testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT) in hormone-sensitive tissues and organs (including the brain). [R]
- A study of females with Asperger’s syndrome found elevated levels of 17 biomarkers including androgens and testosterone. According to the authors, “confirming predictions from the ‘extreme male brain’ and androgen theories of autism spectrum conditions.” [R]
Collectively, the studies suggest that hyperandrogenism may be a significant risk factor for ASD [Sex differences in Autism Spectrum Disorders]
The next question we must ask is, why do elevated androgens cause these conditions?
A substantial link: RORA Levels
Prominent recent studies have found a reduced level of RORA (Retinoic acid-related orphan receptor-alpha) in the brain tissues of individuals with autism. [R]
The researchers propose that this finding helps explain how testosterone influences ASD risk because RORA deficiency is linked to aromatase deficiency.
Aromatase* is an enzyme that converts androgens to estrogens. Low aromatase and high androgen levels – found in individuals with ASD – when combined with reduced RORA, create a negative feedback loop, even further reducing RORA.
Because RORA performs critical roles in brain development as well as neuroprotection against inflammation and oxidative stress, this may very well explain some of the causes of autism, PANS and other male prevalent neurological conditions.
For more on the RORA gene please see the research linked above and/or: RORA Just the Gene for Autism we wanted
*Note the aromatase enzyme, because there is an herb we’re using that can increase it.
Androgens, glial cells, and immune response
Another potential reason testosterone specifically influences the risk for neurodevelopmental disorders may involve glial cell function in the brain.
The glial cells surround neurons and provide support for and insulation between them. Glial cells are abundant in the central nervous system and are necessary for neurological protection and proper immune function.
It’s proposed that male and female sex hormones affect both the number of glial cells and the levels of immune molecules, leaving males particularly neurologically sensitive to the effects of early-life immune challenges or injury. [R]
In other words, excess androgens may cause the brain to be unable to respond appropriately to immune challenges and lead to neurological disorders.
So, we know there’s a correlation between certain symptoms and disorders and increased androgens…
Do the symptoms change when hormone levels are altered?
Observed effects of suppressing sex hormones with gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists
GnRH agonist drugs have been used to reduce levels of serum testosterone, lutenizing hormone (LH), and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) in both adults and children with neurodevelopmental disorders and autism.
These drugs are strong and carry side effects that can be serious. I don’t propose using them, but reviewing the significant results they’ve had is important.
- In a study with males who had therapy resistant OCD, the drugs brought about a considerable improvement of the severity of symptoms. “The finding gives further support to the contention that anti-androgenic agents are effective in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder.” [R]
- In two studies of Alzheimer’s patients, investigators found a significant decrease in aggressive and impulsive behaviors. [R, R]
- In several studies with children, researchers found that as androgen levels decreased, there was a dramatic reduction in autistic-like behaviors. The areas with significant improvement reported were:
- increased sociability
- greater cognitive awareness
- reduced aggressive behaviors
- mastering school skills
- better sleep patterns
- improvements in attention
- decreased hyperactivity
- reduced excessive body and facial hair
- reduced stereotypy movements
- less irritability and less rage [R]
Observed effects of INCREASING androgens by giving testosterone.
One interesting study administered testosterone to young adult females and found it significantly impaired their social intelligence including their cognitive empathetic ability to infer emotions, intentions, feelings and other mental states. [R]
What about using anti-androgen herbs as a safe, much gentler alternative to GnRH agonists?
In my research, I was surprised that I didn’t find anyone who referenced or studied these herbs for childhood neurodevelopmental disorders, which made me very curious and excited to determine their potential.
Because of the research I’d done to treat my skin and the profound results after so many years of battling hormonal blemishes, I knew a combination of herbs could effectively reduce androgens.
For Caroline, I selected the three herbs I had success with and one additional herb that has specifically been shown to increase aromatase activity (recall the RORA discussion above).
1. Saw Palmetto
Saw Palmetto is a small palm tree. The extract from it’s serenoa berries has been shown to reduce the uptake of androgens by blocking 5-alpha-reductase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to DHT (a.k.a. the “bad” testosterone) into tissues by 40%. [R].
Vitex fruit, also known as Chaste Tree berry, is often used to correct hormonal imbalances. Studies have shown low doses of Vitex (Agnus castus extract) to effectively increase prolactin and reduce androgens and DHT. [R]
3. Black Cohosh
Black Cohosh is a plant in the buttercup family. The extract containing triterpene glycosides has the ability to inhibit androgens so well that it’s been proven to prevent growth in androgen sensitive cancer cells. [R]
4. White Peony
Paeoniflorin, a compound found in white peony has been documented to inhibit androgen synthesis and stimulate aromatase activity. [R]
Because aromatase is responsible for increasing RORA which performs critical roles in brain development as well as neuroprotection against inflammation and oxidative stress, white peony is an important herb.
*Note: The supplement, DIM, blocks aromatase and should be avoided for anyone with excess androgens.
An Update on Plant Derived Anti-Androgens, in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, summarizes some of the research on these herbs as well as reishi mushrooms, licorice, green tea and spearmint. Their reference list of Pubmed articles is very helpful for more information on the studies they reviewed, safety of each, and recommended dosages.
For more on saw palmetto specifically (because the above authors didn’t include much of the research on it), please see: Saw Palmetto May Reduce Elevated Androgens in the Journal of Restorative Medicine.
I think it’s important to remember that these herbs are not GnRH agonist drugs. They are blocking the effects of excess androgens, not shutting down the production of hormones.
They are gentle, yet the benefits in our case were quite noticeable. For children who have elevated androgens, I don’t think moderate doses would be able to reduce androgens to concerningly low or below average levels.
What I’ve witnessed is that they seem to have the ability to bring androgens closer to the normal range, thereby reducing the severity of symptoms of autism, adhd, PANS and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
We started with saw palmetto and by the next day, I noticed a reduction in the bursts of anger she’d been having when asking her to do a non-preferred activity. These episodes began with the onset of her Lyme induced PANS flare 6 months ago and also coincided with her turning 11 years old.
To verify what I was noticing was attributable to saw palmetto, I stopped using it for several days. She reverted to exactly how she had been prior. When I restarted it, I also added vitex and black cohosh.
This time it was very evident the rage episodes were muted and short lived. Instead of up to 10 minutes of out of control behavior, she merely had a quick flash of anger in her eyes that she was able to control. I was amazed!
Perhaps even more surprisingly, she began using longer, more descriptive sentences including previously unused adjectives. She became more present and engaged. And most shocking of all, some of her remaining Lyme induced PANS neurological symptoms (tics and head movements) were noticeably fading quickly.
After a few weeks, I added white peony. The very first day, the remaining flashes of rage were 100% gone and she was very calm, even more engaged and not fidgety anymore. I couldn’t believe it! She still lets me know about the things she doesn’t want to do.. of course.. but there is no flash of rage or anger and she’s notably more content throughout the day. I’m still in awe that these herbs truly delivered as promised for both her and I!
What I’m currently giving Caroline:
- Saw Palmetto Extract – 100mg, AM plus 100mg, PM: Sonora Nutrition – Standardized to contain 85% fatty acids and sterols
- Vitex – 100mg, AM: Nature’s Way
- Black Cohosh – 40mg, AM: Nature’s Way – Standardized as 2.5%
- White Peony – 300mg, AM: Life Extension – Standardized providing 125mg paeoniflorin
[1.14.18: White peony dose increased to 300mg – am, 150mg – noon, 150mg – bed = 600mg total. Seeing even greater engagement and language improvements]
It’s important to give at least one dose of these herbs in the morning because that’s when testosterone levels peak. Also, for reference, Caroline weighs 75 lbs and I’m opening the capsules to give her a smaller dose than the full capsule.
* Note about Green Tea / ECGC: It’s listed as anti-androgenic, but also shown to be an aromatase inhibitor [R]. Caroline has been taking it for about 4 months as part of her Lyme protocol. I didn’t notice it helping with any of the symptoms described above and I may remove it given this research.
In the future, I also plan to try spearmint [R] and licorice ]R] to determine if we obtain additional benefits, but I’m very pleased with the 4 that we’re using. I will also continue to tweak dosages and additional times of day given to determine the best combination.
If you’d like a combination tincture, this one contains Saw Palmetto, Vitex, and Black Cohosh – per the manufacturer there are 220mg of each per serving (link directs to 4oz size, but you can select 2oz also).
The only difference is that with the liquids, the extracts are not standardized like the powder capsules, so the dose may need to be adjusted.
If we want to try them, should we perform testing first?
I’ve read that the reference ranges for hormone testing are not reliable and I agree. My own levels fell well within normal range when clearly they weren’t.
I decided to treat Caroline without testing because 1. She has neurodevelopmental disorders 2. Genetically, she was likely to match myself and 3. She does have growth of facial and body hair slightly more than typical. 4. Her symptoms were worst in the morning, when testosterone is highest. Some girls may have estrogen dominance, but I was confident she did not.
For boys, if their symptoms indicate elevated androgens, especially including having OCD, adhd, or autism, my opinion is that reducing them slightly with these herbs is something I would try on my child without a test.
A good thing about these herbs is that we saw changes quickly and the effects are temporary. So, in the presence of symptoms, a short trial to see what you observe is not much of a risk, in my opinion.
If you’d like to perform testing, the tests available are serum testosterone, serum free testosterone, % free testosterone, serum/plasma dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), androstendione, and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
Detailed information about the tests is included in: What Is a Testosterone Test?
When to Consider a Testosterone Test is another helpful article, although I don’t think I would rely on the chart of reference ranges for children.
What are typical symptoms of elevated androgens?
In addition to rule governed thinking or a highly systemizing brain, some symptoms that can suggest elevated androgen levels are:
- Early onset of puberty, including facial and body hair growth
- Impulsivity, risk taking, anger, rage, aggressiveness
- Mood swings, depression
- Adult Males: male pattern baldness, enlarged prostrate and low sperm count [R]
- Adult Females: hirsutism – increased facial and body hair, thinning hair on the head, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – menstrual irregularity / dysfunction, infertility and virilization [R]
From research and experience, I believe that anti-androgen herbs for autism, ADHD, PANS, and other male prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders are an underexplored frontier with incredible potential!
While these herbs are not a cure for the disorders, for us they have shown to effectively reduce the severity of symptoms. They also may very well, via glial cell implications, help avoid neurological damage from immune challenges.
It’s with great anticipation that I wrote this article and I’m looking forward to hopefully hearing positive results from other families who give them a try.
I know that like us, many of you would welcome a reduction in OCD, rigidity, and anger with an increase in calmness and cognition as an incredibly remarkable victory!
*Update: We have many parents who are reporting some amazing gains, similar to what we observed, from adding these herbs. I could not be more hopeful based on what we’re hearing! There’s a file at the Recovering Kids Facebook Group where we’re gathering observations and information about dosages etc… You can search for it with #androgens.
For additional blog posts by Rebecca Ferguson – Regarding Caroline • click here