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Autism & ADHD part 4: Food for thought


The antioxidant-starved brain

Feeling a little brain fog? Anxiety? Depression? Imbalances and deficiencies in the brain can mess with our thoughts just as they manifest neurological conditions like autism, ADHDParkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. When we step back and listen for clues, we can hear our cognitive health screaming for attention, namely in the form of antioxidants.

We’ve heard how antioxidants can help us reduce inflammation and stay youthful. Technically, they prevent oxidation of molecules. Oxidation is a sort of “biological corrosion” that happens when chemical bonds are broken and free radicals are formed. Internal and external toxins such as air pollution, fried foods, and pesticides can cause free radicals to form. Antioxidants, generated from within our body or consumed through certain foods, can limit the damage from oxidants by chemically neutralizing or passivating the free radicals.

One of the most important antioxidants in the body and brain is glutathione. This unique blend of amino acids acts like a scrub brush for our cells. Glutathione is involved in detoxifying heavy metals, and decreases in glutathione appear to contribute to aging and cognitive decline. Alcohol can reduce our body’s glutathione productionAnimal studies indicate that males naturally have lower levels of glutathione and more mitochondrial DNA damageGlutathione peroxidase, an antioxidant enzyme, is also lowered in autismdepression and coronary artery disease.

It would be simple if we could fix things with a glutathione supplement, and some research shows how this may improve body chemistry as well as symptoms of hyperactivity, tantrumming, and receptive language. But in general, glutathione appears most beneficial when it is consumed in foods or created by the body.

“When it comes to boosting glutathione status, a nutrient-dense diet rich in traditional foods in the best adjunct to dietary and lifestyle strategies…” – Chris Masterjohn, PhD, Glutathione 101, Part 1, Weston A Price Foundation


Glutathione is highest in freshly prepared meats as well as fruits and vegetables. Indeed, a recent study found that a high intake of vegetables and fruits was associated with less DNA hypomethylation – an underlying problem in autism. Green tea has also been linked to increased glutathione levels in adults with metabolic syndrome, though heavy metal contamination can be high in brewed tea.

Some foods might help raise glutathione by increasing the levels of cysteine, an amino acid “building block” of glutathione. Cysteine is rich in high-protein foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. Studies showed that whey protein also increased glutathione levels in the liver and prevented severe allergic immune reactions. Ricotta cheese, yogurt, cow’s milk, and goat milk contain whey, and raw cow’s milk and goat milk may be more digestible for lactose-intolerant individuals.

Eating fresh foods and vegetables may also help by simply lowering the intake of less nutritious, inflammatory foods. According to Dean P. Jones, Methods in Enzymology, processing and preservation of foods can oxidate glutathione and reduce levels. Glutathione is lowest in dairy, cereals, and breads – common kid-favored food. Expanding the palate of autistic children may be particularly challenging, especially when these kids can be picky eaters. Furthermore, many autistic children experience elevated leptin hormone levels, signaling appetite suppression. Yet the long-term benefits of enforcing fresh food consumption and reducing processed food addictions are worth every ounce of effort.

Dr. Mark Hyman compiled a list of foods and specific supplements that support glutathione production. There are numerous online resources that can help parents plan meals or locate health-conscious grocery stores and restaurants to make the transition easier, but parents must find the strength and perseverance to stick with nutritional priorities.

The supplement situation

Certain supplements play a complex, valuable role in balancing body chemistry – especially the support of glutathione production. Yet we must be careful when using supplements with individuals who have difficulty with detoxification. For example, children with ADHD show deficiencies in iron and zinc, but the effectiveness of supplementation has been inconsistent. Another study showed that general use of over-the-counter vitamins did not improve methylation activity of autistic children. These anomalies might be explained by certain vitamins and minerals that cannot be easily absorbed by the gut. Keep in mind, vitamin and mineral deficiencies may indicate a problem with absorption and processing that cannot always be remedied with supplementation. Supplementation should be carefully advised and monitored by a health professional. Food allergies and intolerances should also be tested to determine if potentially therapeutic foods and supplements might trigger reactions and oxidative stress.

Aminos awry in autism

Autistic children show critical amino acid deficiencies. Since amino acids help create glutathione, naturally boosting levels of amino acids and their building blocks may be important aspects of treatment. Ensuring a diet sufficient in healthy, fresh sources of protein (composed of amino acids) might be an important part of prevention and treatment in the future. In fact, animal studies point to the influence of maternal high fat and low protein diets on brain inflammation. Amino acids can also indirectly support detoxification, explaining why low protein diets might increase the toxic effects of methylmercury. Let us look at some of the amino acids and their components involved in autism.

Sources: *Council for Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, 2013; **Biological Trace Element Research, 2011; ***Current Pediatric Research, 2013; ****Nutrition and Metabolism, 2011; *****Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition, 2012; *****BMC Pediatrics, 2011

Sulfur: Sulfur is a primary component of amino acids methionine, cysteine, homocysteine, and taurine that are involved in glutathione productionLevels of sulfates are decreased in autism, though reasons are unclear. Sulfur plays a role in glutathione production, connecting the methionine cycle to the transsulfuration pathwayThis pathway is influenced by sulfur-based amino acids as well as vitamin B6 and choline.

Subjects in a vitamin/mineral study showed small increases in sulfates after taking methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), and it was suggested that soaking in Epsom salts may help further increase these levels. Major sources of sulfur include proteins such as eggs (more in the whites), meat and fish; natural sources of MSM include raw milk, vegetables and fruits. Vitamins B1 (thiamine) and biotin also contain sulfur. All foods and supplements high in sulfur or sulfur-based amino acids should be monitored in case of sensitivity.

Like propionic acid, sulfur dioxide generated inside the body may be helpful, but outside exposure appears toxic. Atmospheric levels of toxic sulfur dioxide have skyrocketed in the United States since the 1960s. Sulfur dioxide is high near industrial facilities that burn coal or oil, and has been linked to asthmatic symptoms. Coal powered plants have been targeted as a suspect for locally high autism rates due to mercury emissions, though the accompanying sulfur dioxide emissions may be an unsuspected accomplice. A 15-year increase of autoimmune thyroiditis in Brazil was associated with industrial plants that produce petroleum byproducts – including sulfur or sulfuric acid. The process of deep hydrodesulfurization removes hydrogen sulfide from petroleum and releases it into the environment as sulfur or sulfuric acid. Yet some sulfur compounds such as dibenzothiophenes (DBTs) cannot be easily reduced. Even with decreasing sulfur dioxide emissions in the U.S., sulfur dioxide continues to pump out in massive quantities from countries like China and India.

Sulfur concentrations can be high in volcanic plumes, forest fires, sea spray, and “acid rain.” Particles can travel in the upper atmosphere for thousands of miles. Organic sulfates and nitrates are part of water vapor and atmospheric aerosols that are poorly understood health factors. An overview of the toxicity of sulfur dioxide is posted by the CDC.

Sulfites are commonly used in food preservation, particularly dried fruit and wine, and consumption resulted in the loss of brain cells in animals. Food labels are not required to list sulfites unless levels exceed 10 mg/liter (ppm). High levels of sulfite destroys vitamin B1 (thiamine), and some people are noticeably sensitive to sulfates and sulfites in food. It is not clear how the common drug allergy to sulfonamides or sulfa medication may relate to sulfite sensitivity or sulfur metabolism. Sulfonamides interfere with the body’s ability to create folic acid, and use of it or penicillin during pregnancy raised the risk of autism by 50%.

It is not yet clear if naturally boosting sulfur levels can directly raise glutathione levels, particularly when many autistics have problems metabolizing sulfur. This concept becomes incredibly pertinent if we consider how sulfur may relate to autoimmune conditions. Rat sensitivity to sulfur-rich egg protein ovalbumin, for example, triggered asthma, but only when rats were exposed to sulfur dioxide. Ovalbumin is the primary protein in eggs, and ovalbumin sensitivity can be easily transferred to infants during pregnancy and lactation – even without consumption of eggs. It is clear that we must examine the intersections of exposures to sulfur compounds from our environment and diet in order to solve this puzzle that may drive autoimmune reactions in the brain.

Cysteine and N-acetylcysteine: Glycine and cysteine supplements were successfully used on diabetic patients and older adults to improve glutathione synthesis and lower oxidative damage. But only N-acetylcysteine, a derivative of cysteine, appears to offer benefits for autism and related behaviors. A randomized controlled trial of antioxidant NAC improved irritability in autistic children, and a recent case report described even more dramatic improvements. NAC also protected animals from autistic-like damage from propionic acid. Preliminary studies showed NAC benefits for repetitive nail biting behavior, though similar improvements for hair pulling were limited to adultsResearch supports the use of NAC to increase glutathione in the body and protect from methylmercury damageNAC even improved ADHD symptoms in patients with lupus, but it is not clear if supplementation can benefit healthier individuals with ADHD.

Keep in mind, some forms of cysteine such as D-cysteine are toxic. A safer, kid-friendly way to increase glutathione in the body might be the addition of cysteine-rich foods. Cysteine is high in egg yolks, yogurt, chicken, turkey, and oats. Undenatured whey protein is high in cysteine which breaks down to sulfur compounds and supports a variety of health conditions.

Carnitine: Studies showed that amino acid supplement L-carnitine helped improve aspects of autism, and it increased glutathione activity in patients with renal disease. L-carnitine also improved the quality of life in patients with Rett Syndrome, a rare and severe form of autism. A synthesized version, acetyl-L-carnitine, protected animal brain cells from glutamate-induced toxicity.

Carnitine is highest in red meat, and it is speculated that L-carnitine might promote heart disease. Yet, other researchers point to the role of intestinal bacteria that break down L-carnitine. Some carnitine is also found in milk, codfish, and chicken. Aluminum toxicity has been shown to interfere with the creation of L-carnitine in the body.

Carnosine: This amino acid is high in animal tissue and shows antioxidant activity for a number of neurological disorders. Improvements were seen in patients with autism as well as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, though the mechanism of success are unclear.


Tryptophan: While animal research has only hinted at tryptophan’s support of glutathione production, this essential amino acid clearly builds proteins and other important compounds that improve behavior and sleep – common problem areas in autism and ADHD. Reduced tryptophan in autistic children may lead to increased depression and irritability. Groundbreaking studies showed that tryptophan supplementation promoted interpersonal trust and increased agreeableness. Serotonin is created from tryptophan, and deficiencies of this neurotransmitter can lead to anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, dependence, and depression. Top common kid-friendly sources of tryptophan include eggs, chocolate, cheese, pork, turkey, chicken, beef, seafood, dairy, meat, spinach, chia/pumpkin/sesame seeds, pistachios, almonds, cashews, and oats. An interesting study suggested that morning consumption of tryptophan and vitamin B6, along with sunlight exposure, improves serotonin levels and sleep cycles that affect general behavior.

Reducing glutamate/glutamic acid: Glutathione production, deficient in autism, requires proper levels of glutamine and glutamate. Autism cases show higher levels of glutamate and lower levels of glutamine. Glutamic acid, a form of glutamate, is also elevated in autism. Glutamic acid is high in some savory or fermented foods like soy sauce, certain cheeses, aged meat. It is also high in seaweed, soy protein, some seafood, wheat, tomatoes, eggs, many nuts and beans, and the flavor additive MSG. In fact, a soy-based diet (high in glutamic acid) makes seizures (a symptom in some cases of autism) worse in animal studies. Soy protein isolate is extremely high in glutamic acid and has been the primary ingredient in dairy-free baby formula since the 1960s. Soy-based formula has also included l-methionine, l-carnitine, and taurine – three amino acids that appear deficient in many autism cases.

A recent study found that a subset of autistic and ADHD children had antibodies against glutamic acid decarboxylase 65 – a key enzyme that breaks down glutamate. Disturbances in levels of this enzyme are related to diabetes, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Parkinson’s disease. More research is needed to determine the role of enzyme allergy or sensitivity to foods high in glutamic acid.

Vitamins are not created equal

Hypomethylation (reduced methylation) is a common challenge for children with ADHD and autism, and it is alarming that the problem may trace back to hypomethylated DNA from the mother. Of all vitamins, it appears that B vitamins are most important in supporting the methylation process. These gems affect genes that control brain cells and influence behavior. Methylated or active forms of B vitamins are easier for some people to absorb and do not burden the body’s methylation requirements. The B vitamin forms that are most supportive of methylation are B6 (as P5P), B9 (as 5 methyltetrahydrofolate), and B12 (as methylcobalamin). Appropriate dosages of these vitamins should be determined with a health practitioner considering deficiencies, conditions, and age.

b6Active B6 (pyridoxal-5′-phosphate): Vitamin B6 is used to create glutathione in the body, and pyridoxal-5′-phosphate (P5P) is the active form of vitamin B6 that makes it easier for the liver to utilize B6. Higher levels of B6 in some autistic children may reflect a problem absorbing B6Vitamin B6 disorders are shared by both ADHD and epilepsy, and pyridoxal phosphate helped improved ADHD behavior over long periods without serious side effects.




Methylated B9 (methylfolate), especially during pregnancyLevels of vitamin B9 (folate) and B12 appear very low in autistic children, and maternal folic acid supplementation during conception was associated with reduced risk of autism. Folate (the natural form of folic acid) is necessary for the production of methionine, a key ingredient in glutathione production. Folate is high in beef liver and spinach and other dark leafy greens. Many products are fortified with the synthetic version (folic acid), but the non-methylated folic acid supplements may be problematic in individuals with methylation problems. Recall that autistic children experience oxidative stress and insufficient DNA methylation. Methylfolate may be a suitable alternative for certain conditions; a recent paper showed that the supplement alone significantly improved ADHD behavior in a majority of the patients.

Researchers found that some autistic children have an autoimmune response (allergy) to folate receptors that can prevent proper brain use of the important B9 vitamin. They suspect that the folate receptor autoantibodies (FRA) may develop from early life exposure and cross-reactivity to folate receptors in human, cow, and goat milk. Preliminary studies showed positive effects of leucovorin – a reduced form of folic acid.

Methylated B12 (methylcobalamin): The B12 vitamin controls one carbon metabolism and DNA methylationChildhood disintegrative disorder, a condition that affects language and intellectual development, is linked to B12 deficiency. Though the most popular form of supplemental B12 has been cyanocobalamin, research points to the benefits of active forms methylcobalamin and hydroxocobalamin. Cyanocobalamin is harder to break down and releases small amounts of cyanide which may be problematic for certain individuals. A recent study showed that vitamin B12 in the form of methylcobalamin (methylated folic acid) and folinic acid were associated with improved behavior and glutathione activity in autistic children. These forms of folic acid are better able to penetrate the cell membranes and improve metabolic functions, even when autistic children may have high levels of B12 in the blood.


In the case of the common vitamin B12 imbalance, a test for methylmalonic acid markers is more accurate than tests for serum cobalamin. Genetic testing may also be useful where elevated levels of B12 are actually reflecting a deficiency related to MTHFR gene variants. Particular genotypes were recently associated with autism when mothers did not consume prenatal vitamins.

The plot thickens when we observe that B12 is the only essential biomolecule that stably combines a carbon and metal molecule. In animals, vitamin B12 with folic acid prevented liver damage from arsenic poisoning.


mk7smBiotin and vitamin K: Biotin is considered part of the B vitamin family, and research shows low levels with autism. A recent study indicated that biotin and vitamin K are created by beneficial intestinal bacteria, and the use of antibiotics can reduce their levels. This research suggested that biotin and vitamin K are markers of nutritional health and should be added to therapeutic supplementation. While the form of vitamin K was not studied, vitamin K2 (menaquinone) is a form of this quinone compound that may be offering additional health benefits and protection against oxidative stress, particularly when there are enzyme and metabolic deficiencies. Furthermore, new studies show that vitamin K2-7 is the form of K2 that is readily absorbed, and vitamin K2-7 is produced from natto fermentation.

Other nutritional nuggets

Reducing high oxalate foodsStudies point to potential problems with oxalates in autistic children, possibly by interfering with iron metabolism. Yet these children do not seem prone to forming kidney stones, the known hallmark of hyperoxaluria. Interestingly, oxalate is a naturally occurring compound in nature with a chemical structure similar to sulfate, and sulfate metabolism appears to be a problem in autism. Oxalates are found in certain foods and are commonly known to promote kidney stones and other calcifications in the body. Oxalates in most grains, soy products, nuts and seeds, alternative milks, potatoes, beans, cocoa powder, and other tasty “healthy” foods can be insidious triggers of trouble for some individuals with oxalate sensitivity.

Susan Owens is a leading researcher on oxalates and autism and has offered her insights to the medical community. The Great Plains Laboratory also offers tests and details on how oxalates can bind with heavy metals in the body. A more complete list of foods organized by oxalate content is available online.

The gut can be deficient in the bacteria Oxalabacter formigenes that normally breaks down oxalate. Calcium deficiency can also contribute to excess oxalate absorption. Researchers are investigating the combination of vitamin E (α-tocopherol) and vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in reducing oxalate-related injury. Evening primrose oil has also been studied as a possible treatment for hyperoxaluria, while omega-3 fatty acid supplementation shows possible benefit as well. The possible gut absorption of oxalate and impact on brain tissue requires much further research.

Enzyme therapy: Autistic children typically show strong and limited food preferences which can create nutritional imbalances. They also show deficient carbohydrate digestion that relates to disaccharidase enzyme deficiency. Enzyme therapy appears to help children expand their variety of foods and work towards achieving greater nutritional balance.

bifidusProbiotics: Autism strongly associates with gastrointestinal disorders and increased intestinal permeability. Probiotics support gut health which directly influences stress and emotions. Interestingly, different probiotics affect the gut and behavior in different ways that remain unclear. For example, obsessive-compulsive behavior was relieved by the probiotic L. rhamnosus in mice.

Antibiotics also increased mercury retention, supporting the idea that certain gut bacteria help remove mercury in the body. In fact, probiotics such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can help bind and detoxify metals in the body. Both brain and kidneys of rats were protected from mercury toxicity by high fiber fermented mare’s milk containing Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum.

Until more information is available on the effects of each probiotic, health experts often recommend supplements with the highest variety of species. These products should be refrigerated to prevent bacteria from perishing. Some retailers such as will delivery products like Jarrow’s Bifidus Balance on ice packs to ensure freshness.

Fabulous fatty acid balance for ADHD

While conditions like autism involve insufficient glutathione to reduce antioxidative powerothers like ADHD appear to involve an insufficient response to oxidative stress. New research of these challenges emphasizes the metabolic balance of fatty acids that influence antioxidant activity and inflammation in a multitude of conditions.

metabolicadhd*Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, 2013**The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, 2012

fishoilGiven the high levels of oxidative stress in adult ADHD, dietary antioxidants may become a critical part of treatment in the future. Subsets of the autistic population have also responded favorably to omega-3s. Some studies indicate that this positive effect may be a result of omega-3’s protection against propionic acid toxicity.

Interestingly, omega-3 fatty acids, in combination with a lesser amount of omega-6 fatty acids, have successfully reduced ADHD behavior in placebo-controlled studies. The concept of supplementing with a blend of omega-3s and omega-6s is further supported by a study that improved social behavior in autism. In this case, docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, was taken with large doses of arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. Keep in mind that an individual’s condition may require different ratios; inflammation-related depression has been associated with higher omega-6s (arachidonic acid) and lower omega-3s.

primroseWhile researchers pursue the perfect recipe of omega-6s and omega-3s, early supplementation appears beneficial and may combat oxidation throughout the brain and body. It is important to choose high-quality fish oils and keep them refrigerated to extend shelf-life and prevent oxidation. Evening primrose oil is a rich source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) that converts to arachidonic acid in the body, and GLA appears to be a frequent choice of omega-6 used in successful ADHD studies to date.

It is interesting that rare, adverse reactions to fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) might indicate pyrrole disorder, and elevated pyrrole levels may appear in cases of ADHD, mood swings, and anxiety. Instead of fish oil, evening primrose oil (gamma-linolenic acid) has been recommended by some naturopaths. Supplemented zinc and activated B6 have also been suggested to address accompanying deficiencies.

Bottom line – reduce oxidative stress

“Glutathione is involved in neuro-protection against oxidative stress and neuro-inflammation in autism by improving the anti-oxidative stress system. Decreasing the oxidative stress might be a potential treatment for autism.” – Current Medicinal Chemistry, 2012

If autism and ADHD are symptoms of a dysfunctional antioxidant system, some degree of progress should be achievable by reducing oxidative triggers in the diet and environment. These guidelines would apply to pregnancy as well, easing the burden on the mother and fetus. Why wait?

Identify and avoid food allergies and sensitivities: As autism emerges as an autoimmune condition and ADHD is associated with autoimmune diseases, we can see why treatment for food and chemical sensitivity or allergy can be effective. Each child has a unique set of tolerances and intolerances, and determining an optimal diet that supports nourishment and reduces the immune burden is a critical part of treatment. A gluten-free and casein-free diet has improved symptoms in some cases. For sensitive children, the gut may require over a year of gluten-free dieting to reestablish bacteria, implying that behavior improvements may also be delayed.

Alternative milks have also reduced symptoms in some children, as described in the case of camel milk. New research shows that α-gliadin-7 and  β-casomorphin-7 peptides formed during wheat and milk digestion may inhibit cysteine uptake and reduce glutathione. Autistic children have higher levels of β-casomorphin-7, suggesting dairy as a new suspect in early life. Interestingly, these peptides also interact with opiate and serotonin receptors. Products such as coconut and goat milk are possible dairy alternatives that provide additional low-oxalate benefits.

Identifying food allergies or sensitivities requires careful journaling and monitoring of symptoms. Effects are not limited to gastrointestinal symptoms and could involve seemingly unrelated fluctuations in concentration, fatigue, mood, or even pain.

Consume foods high in flavonoids, polyphenols and vitamin C: Fresh fruits and vegetables appear to counteract oxidative stress in the body through the action of these powerful substances. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are rich in flavonoids, and berries appear to pack some of the most. For example, scientists found that wild blueberry juice helped increase resistance to oxidative damage after consumption for six weeks. Keep in mind that juicing may not capture all of the benefits; citrus pulp is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and flavonoids. Green tea, also high in flavonoids, enhanced working memory, improved brain inflammation (with apple) in early Alzheimer’s, and associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  Though the USDA briefly offered a resource that listed antioxidant levels in foods, this database was sadly unplugged after food manufacturing companies exploited the information. A useful chart of flavonoids is posted by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

“Obesity is a disease of oxidative stress.” – European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2013

Exercise and lose weight: Oxidative stress increases with obesity as well as the decrease in nitric oxide. Lifelong caloric restriction can reduce oxidative stressDietary intervention with foods high in antioxidants (fruits, vegetables, legumes) improved weight loss and blood antioxidant levels in one study.

Avoid food coloring and preservatives: A recent study showed that avoidance of artificial food colors significantly reduced ADHD symptoms. One study found lead, mercury, and arsenic in food coloring. Food preservatives are also an issue, and sodium benzoate-rich beverages were linked to ADHD symptoms in college students. Children who are sensitive to artificial food colorings are often sensitive to other common nonsalicylate and salicylate-rich foods.

Avoid possible environmental triggers: As outlined in part 2, pollutants in air, soil, water, and food may contribute to the accumulation of toxins and oxidative burden in certain individuals. Old plumbing and paint, pesticides, fragrant products, canned foods, and plastics are examples of hidden contributors. Even home furnishings and electronics contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) – flame retardants that may link to autism.

Beta-glucans: Polysaccharides called beta-glucans are useful parts of cell walls of bacteria and fungi such as mushrooms and baker’s yeast. Ironically, they help reduce the immune impact of mycotoxins as well as mercury and depleted uranium. Oats and medicinal mushrooms are popular sources of beta-glucans that are potential weapons for protecting the brain and treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Alpha-lipoic acidLipoic or alpha-lipoid acid (ALA) is a sulfur-based compound suggested for neuroprotective treatment of oxidative stress. ALA increased glutathione peroxidase activity in test subjects with diabetes, and showed promising results in lab and animal studies. Cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease was slowed with a combination of omega-3s and alpha-lipoic acid. ALA is found in certain animal tissues of the heart, kidney, and liver as well as spinach and broccoli.

Herbs: Many herbs can promote antioxidant activity, but their potency requires careful study before supplementation. Bacopa monniera protected brain tissue in rats from damage caused by methyl mercury. Very promising results have been achieved with Pycnogenol®, an extract made from bark of the French maritime pine. Low dose treatment with prooxidants schisandrin (Shisandra) and curcumin (turmeric) increased the glutathione antioxidant response and liver protection in vivoCurcumin also reduced autistic behavior in rats. Due to the high oxalate content of many herbs, extracts may be a suitable alternative where there is oxalate sensitivity. More research is necessary to examine how antioxidants in herbs can help improve brain activity impacted by oxidative stress.

Vitamin D: Low levels of vitamin D, which protects cells from DNA damage and deficiencies, has been associated with many conditions like autism, including autoimmune-related auto-antibodies. The rising incidence of food allergy has also been associated with diminished vitamin D levels in infants. Promisingly, pregnant women showed increased glutathione levels when taking vitamin D supplements. The vitamin D hormone can be produced in skin exposed to direct sunlight, though excessive amounts can cause oxidative stress. Vitamin D can also increase calcium absorption, so conditions such as hypercalcemia must be evaluated before supplementation.

Research on vitamin D is filled with gaping holes that make the puzzles even more difficult to solve. Vitamin D has many different forms in the body which do not offer the same health benefits. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) associates with greater immune and bone health and reduced inflammation, but the mechanisms are unclear. The body’s formation of vitamin D3 in the skin is part of a complex chain of events requiring initial UVB radiation, the presence of 7-dehydrocholesterol, and a “previtamin D3.” The resulting forms are carried to the liver and kidneys where further transformations (and disruptions) can occur. Vitamin D appears to be influential when it binds with vitamin D receptors (VDR) throughout the body, and this activity controls genes that drive calcium absorption. The epidemic of vitamin D deficiency can relate problems anywhere in this process, including genetic mutations related to VDR.

A better understanding of our internal production of vitamin D may help fill in the blanks. Recall that sulfates and sulfur-based amino acids are deficient in autism. When the body is exposed to sunlight, vitamin D3 sulfate is created, but unsulfated vitamin D3 is consumed in fatty fish, fish oil and oral supplements. Despite older animal studies that disregard the biological activity of vitamin D3 sulfate, researcher Dr. Stephanie Seneff believes that the sulfated form of vitamin D3 provides unrecognized health benefits. She also points out that cholesterol sulfate from the skin has other protective values. While cholesterol is required for vitamin D3 synthesis as well as brain development and function, autistic children show low or disturbed levels of cholesterol that are currently being studied. It is no surprise that levels of cholesterol or its metabolites are also abnormal in Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, depression, and ADHD. The roles of the skin organ, sunshine exposure, and immune system deserve much attention as our lives have shifted indoors and chemical pollutants have become ubiquitous.


The final part 5 of this series will post later this year, exploring the astounding connections between autism, ADHD and autoimmune/allergic diseases that will help collect more pieces of the puzzle!

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