The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released striking statistics that indicated the prevalence of autism is now around 2 percent, or about one in 50 Americans. While this may represent improvements in detection and reporting mechanisms, rather than simply an increase in incidence, the numbers are no less sobering.
While decades of research have failed to identify a single cause for autism -- indeed it looks likely there is no single cause to be found -- a recent study has implicated a culprit increasingly found to be at the root of a myriad of disease processes: oxidative damage.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis Center for Children's Environmental Health published findings from a 10-year study which suggest levels of oxidative damage to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in autistic children is similar to that expected to be found in older individuals. Titled the Childhood Autism Risk from Genes and Environment study, or CHARGE, the investigation looked into markers for oxidative damage from reactive oxygen species (ROS) in children and their parents.
What are ROSs?
ROS are, to a certain degree, a natural byproduct of metabolism. During the biochemical processes that convert carbohydrates to biologically useful energy, a certain amount of that energy is lost as potentially dangerous molecules known as free radicals. While the body employs several overlapping mechanisms to neutralize free radicals, these mechanisms can become overwhelmed by environmental toxins -- such as heavy metals and tobacco smoke -- and can also be weakened by a low intake of antioxidants from the diet.
Free radicals which escape neutralization by the body's defense systems increase oxidative stress which contributes to damage to mtDNA. This can result in a greater inefficiency of energy-producing processes in the mitochondria which, in turn, increases the amount of free radicals produced by metabolism. What is worse, we now know certain types of DNA damage can be passed down through several generations.
Foods and Supplements to Improve Antioxidant Status
Fortunately, there are several steps that can be taken to offset oxidative damage to DNA. The simplest is to increase intake of foods which contain high amounts of antioxidants. In other words, more vegetables and fruits (Are we noticing a trend here?). Now here's the bad news. Between decades of farming practices that deplete nutrients in the soil, along with a staggering increase of toxins and pollutants coming at us from all angles, correcting generations of low antioxidant status through food alone is most likely an impossible task. In these cases, additional supplementation is needed over and above a complete dietary overhaul.
Vitamin C: This vital nutrient is found in dark leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, cilantro, peppers and citrus fruits. Unfortunately, it would take upwards of six daily servings in order to get the amount of vitamin C needed for extra antioxidant protection. For this reason, I recommend 2 g daily of a buffered vitamin C supplement for anybody seeking these benefits.
Vitamin A: Vitamin A is particularly abundant in organ meats, such as liver, which is an indication of how important it is to our metabolism as organs are much more metabolically active than muscle tissue. Luckily, there is an alternative for those uninterested in incorporating a weekly serving of organic calf's liver into their diet. Since the body can convert beta carotene to vitamin A internally, fruits and vegetables containing this nutrient can be eaten in order to boost these levels. Simply look for anything orange, as beta carotene is the molecule which imparts this color to foods. For supplementation, start at 10,000 IU of beta carotene daily.
Vitamin E: This antioxidant is found most abundantly in seeds and nuts, along with vegetable oils. Sadly, it would take about 10 cups of almonds a day to reach the levels needed to improve antioxidant status. To supplement, take 400 IU daily of vitamin E as mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols.
CoQ10: This molecule is one of the few antioxidants that can be completely synthesized internally by the body. However, since it's the primary antioxidant present in mitochondria, those with mitrochondrial damage may not be able to produce sufficient amounts on their own. When supplementation is needed, the dosage typically starts at 100 mg daily of CoQ10 as ubiquinol.
Although supplementation of these nutrients at the above recommended levels is well within safety limits, it's always wise to get nutrient levels checked before beginning a more aggressive supplement program, as this can reveal additional information which will make a supplement program much more effective. If you or a loved one suffers from autism, I recommend you seek out a naturopathic physician, dietitian or nutritionist trained in the administration and interpretation of these specialized tests.
While there is as yet little conclusive scientific evidence supplementation with antioxidants can improve autism, what we do know is oxidative stress and DNA damage is at the root of so many diseases. It just makes sense to do whatever we can to offset it. Diet and nutrition certainly play an important role as vegetables and fruits are likely to contain hundreds of different molecules which offer differing degrees of protection from oxidative damage which work together in a synergistic fashion that can never be replicated with supplements. On the other hand, supplements offer levels of specific antioxidant nutrients simply impossible to attain through food alone.
As always, the best approach is to use a combination of a healthy diet, lifestyle and supplements when indicated.
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