We are in the midst of what can only be described as an epidemic of autism. When I first started my medical practice in 1979, autism was a relatively rare disease with an incidence of one in 10,000 individuals. Recently, some authorities are quoting incidences as high as one in 45. That’s a staggering increase over a three-decade period.
Unfortunately, the majority of autistic people end up heavily medicated and sedated with psychiatric drugs and/or given electroshock therapy. What brought this about? What can be done about it? This article explores the mystery and offers some natural solutions.
What is Autism?
A good definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as it appears on the Autism Speaks website, is as follows: “[Autism] is a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.”
Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that ASD has an incidence of one in 68 children, occurring across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. ASD is five times more common in boys (one in 42 cases) than girls (one in 189 cases). Children can be diagnosed with ASD as early as two years of age.
Identical twin studies indicate that if one child has autism, the identical twin is also autistic between 36% and 95% of the time. Parents having one child with autism can carry up to an 18% increased chance of having a second child with ASD. (The connection to genetics is debatable.)
It was estimated in 2011 that the total cost of ASD cases in the U.S. was nearly $61 billion. With the rising incidence of ASD, this cost is expected to increase even further. This does not include the costs of special schooling, as well as behavioural and natural therapies for those who opt out of the drug and electroshock experience. Some scientists have predicted that, by 2025, the incidence of autism will be one out of every two children.
No one can agree on a single cause for ASD, but changes in brain structure and function, as proven by brain scans, are generally accepted as fact. The shape and structure of the brains of autistic children are abnormal when compared to non-ASD children. Autistic children are therefore considered as brain damaged.
Some theories of causation point to genetics, older parents (especially fathers over age 35), environmental pollutants and toxic heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum, etc), vaccines, viruses, impaired immune systems, food sensitivities, pesticides, glyphosate and GMO (genetically modified) foods, leaky gut syndrome, gut flora imbalance, vitamin deficiencies, and malabsorption syndromes. The common denominator amongst all these potential causes is that they can all lead to chronic brain inflammation and nervous system damage.
• VITAMIN D – Every brain cell has vitamin D receptors. Vitamin D is anti-inflammatory, protecting the brain from oxidative stress and damage. Vitamin D protects against DNA mutations, so it could reduce the incidence of autism and reduce ASD symptoms even after the diagnosis is made, provided the brain levels are adequate. Vitamin D can reduce the seizure threshold, making seizures less common in ASD children.
Vitamin D up-regulates the production of glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant and chelator of toxic heavy metals like mercury. This could therefore be of significant benefit to autistic children who are overburdened by mercury from fish, dental fillings, or mercury-containing vaccines.
Studies show that low maternal vitamin D status is a risk factor for premature delivery, and the risk of autism increases with each week of prematurity. It is therefore prudent to ensure that all pregnant women have an optimal vitamin D blood level.
High levels of vitamin D lower the incidence of influenza and other viral infections. Since viral infections are connected to a higher ASD incidence, it makes sense to ensure optimal maternal D levels.
Vitamin D also helps regulate serotonin levels in the brain. Blood levels of serotonin may be high in ASD children but their brain levels are most often quite low. Vitamin D helps change this abnormality to a more optimum level by up-regulating the enzyme that boosts serotonin levels in the brain.
Research documented on the Vitamin D Council web site as well as numerous other sources supports the findings that vitamin D during pregnancy, infancy and toddlerhood reduces the risk of developing ASD. Further, there is also evidence that vitamin D can reduce some of the signs and symptoms of ASD.
If you live in Canada you simply cannot get enough D through sunshine, even in the summer. My recommendation for expectant moms is to get their blood levels of vitamin D (25-hydroxy) checked and take between 5,000 to 10,000 IU of D3 daily. These are also the recommendations of Dr. John Cannell of the Vitamin D Council.
Unless your levels are very high to begin with, it is safe to take this level of supplementation according to most authorities and published research. Making sure that D levels are optimal can help both prevent and treat ASD.
• OXYTOCIN – is secreted by the pituitary gland and is mostly involved with labour, delivery, and breastfeeding. It also enhances social bonding. It has been reported to improve social, emotional, and behavioural issues among children with autism. A recent study of 31 autistic children published in a psychiatric journal showed very positive improvements in their symptoms. Study spokesperson, Associate Professor Adam Guastella of the Brain and Mind Centre, stated:
“We found that following oxytocin treatment, parents reported their child to be more socially responsive at home, and our own blind independent clinician ratings also supported improved social responsiveness in the therapy rooms of the Brain and Mind Centre.”
The mechanism of how oxytocin works is thought to be through the release of anandamide, which acts on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. These are the same receptors on which cannabis acts. The effects of cannabis on ASD symptoms are well documented.
The effectiveness of oxytocin for ASD is controversial. Several research centers are conducting their own studies on oxytocin at present so there should be some consensus on the effectiveness of this treatment in the years to come.
• CANNABIS – They call it “medical” marijuana but let’s just call it cannabis. The medical profession wants to take it over, hence the term “medical.” Really? It’s a plant, not a drug, after all, and conventional medicine ought to stay out of it. Over-the-counter cold remedies sold in pharmacies are far more toxic.
Wrongfully vilified since at least the 1960s, cannabis has recently shown great promise for ASD. Legalization in Canada is in the works but there are already dozens of cannabis dispensaries making it available on a doctor’s prescription. This is despite the fact that most doctors know little about it beyond their experiences with smoking the stuff during medical school.
Cannabis contains THC (the psychoactive component) and CBD (Cannabidiol), which has medicinal properties but does not produce the drug-induced high seen with THC. You cannot get stoned on CBD, folks.
CBD has long-lasting analgesic effects, reduces inflammation, and has been effectively used in chronic pain syndromes, arthritis, MS, cancer, dementia, depression and seizure disorders.
It has also shown great benefits for ASD, especially for those cases associated with seizure disorders. CBD reduces anxiety, which often leads to tantrums, meltdowns, and seizures. CBD also acts as a neuroprotective agent against further brain degradation. (Two recent cases of ASD associated with seizure disorders in my own practice demonstrated significant improvements in social behaviour as well as seizure reduction.)
To treat ASD effectively, the cannabis needs to be high in CBD, not THC. At the time of this writing, only the CBD oil extracted from hemp is available in Canada, and only via a doctor’s prescription.
For a relatively high price, you can import CBD capsules from the U.S. At the moment, Health Canada is disallowing the sale of CBD in capsules. Truthfully, the legal status of this harmless hemp extract is quite muddled, much like Health Canada itself.
How safe is CBD? It appears to be very well tolerated with virtually no side effects or signs of toxicity. (Risperdal and other antipsychotic drugs used to “treat” ASD were responsible for 45 deaths between 2000 and 2004. During that same period, cannabis related deaths were zero.)
• METHYLATION – is a biochemical process occurring in the body that involves the addition of a single carbon and three hydrogen atoms (a methyl group) to another molecule. Why is this important? Many people have a genetic weakness that causes them to have trouble performing methylation effectively. Methylation is needed for:
– RNA and DNA (our genetic material) formation
– Immune system regulation
– Detoxification of heavy metals and toxins
– Making glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant and detoxifying agent
– The production and function of proteins
– Regulating inflammation
– Making neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine) and other natural substances (melatonin, CoQ10, carnitine, creatine, choline)
The best diet supporting healthy methylation is the “paleo” diet (no grains, sugar, or starches but lots of protein, vegetables, seeds and nuts). Organic food wherever possible is essential. Grains are fortified with folic acid but up to 70% of ASD children cannot convert it to its active folate form. Folic acid can be toxic to such children. The right thing to do in such a case is to supplement 5-MTHF (5-methyl-tetra-hydro-folate).
One of the most important reasons to follow an organic diet is to avoid genetically modified foods and a chemical called glyphosate. Dr. Stephanie Seneff, from MIT, believes that this herbicide manufactured by Monsanto is the cause of the rapidly escalating incidence of ASD. She claims that glyphosate will be the cause of a one in two incidence of ASD by the year 2025.
One of the best-known methylators is vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin), which can be given as an injection or taken under the tongue in tablet or liquid form. The usual doses are 1,000 – 5,000 mcg. daily. Some people have safely taken as much as 15,000 mcg daily. Vitamin B12 helps to boost the body’s glutathione levels.
Another way of getting around the methylation problem is to supplement glutathione directly. Glutathione protects the brain from toxicity. Glutathione is crucial as a detoxifier of toxic heavy metals and chemicals. Depletion of glutathione has been linked to ASD. (For more information see my glutathione article in a past issue of Vitality: http://tinyurl.com/z4vhjf5)
SAMe (S-Adenosyl-Methionine) is another powerful methyl donor and helps the body create healthy levels of carnitine, creatine, choline and other important molecules needed for optimal brain function. Lesser-known methyl donor options include DMG (Dimethylglycine) and TMG (trimethylglycine).
The Gut-Flora Connection
It is estimated that 90% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder suffer from gastrointestinal problems like inflammatory bowel disease and what has been termed “Leaky Gut Syndrome.” In leaky gut syndrome, the intestines become excessively permeable allowing the passage of toxins into the bloodstream. There is an imbalance between the friendly gut flora and potentially harmful bacteria, fungi, parasites and their toxic secretions.
A 2013 Italian study reported that children with ASD had far fewer Bifidobacteria in their gut than healthy children. Bifidobacteria are very important in promoting intestinal health. Studies now show that restoring proper microbial balance can alleviate the behavioural signs of ASD. Diet changes favouring a healthier flora along with supplements designed to heal the leaky gut (L-glutamine, vitamin D, enzymes, and probiotics) are effective strategies.
These natural approaches to ASD have very low toxicity compared to the typical psychiatric “treatments.” To optimize results, work with a naturopath or CAM medical doctor familiar with the therapies discussed here.
On May 19th, 2016, I’ll be speaking on this topic in more detail. You are invited to attend. For information, visit https://www.orthomolecularhealth.com. Lecture: Addressing Autistic Spectrum Disorder; May 19, 6:45 pm to 8:00 pm; Northern District Toronto Library; 40 Orchard View Boulevard; Toronto, Ontario Canada (see Calendar of Events in this [April 2016] issue.) or call (416) 733-2117.
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• Oxytocin for Autism. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151027074805.htm
• Autism Can Be Treated with Medical Marijuana. http://guardianlv.com/2014/08/autism-can-be-treated-with-medical-marijuana/
• Medical Marijuana in the Management of Autism. http://www.medicaljane.com/2013/01/17/medical-marijuana-autism/
• Gut Bacteria May Play a Role in Autism. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-bacteria-may-play-a-role-in-autism/
• The Role of Glyphosate and Autism. http://naturalsociety.com/mit-scientist-glyphosate-to-cause-autism-in-50-of-children-by-2025
• Glyphosate and Autism. http://www.naturalnews.com/049065_glyphosate_autism_GMOs.html
• Electroshock Therapy for Autism. http://tinyurl.com/ld6lhzs