My recent studies have focused very much on vitamin D and all of its wonderful benefits. A quick perusal of the other articles on our blog will confirm this! Recently, I came across information that was too good not to share with all of you. A link between Autism and vitamin D deficiency has been established. As some of you know, we see many children at The Vreeland Clinic for interventions with autism. We provide nutritional and neurological rehabilitation programs to further assist in the development of the brains of these children. In this article I would like to share with you groundbreaking information regarding vitamin D and autism.
Autism statistics are staggering. Twenty-five years ago an autism diagnosis was a 1 in 10,000 chance. Today, 1 in 100 children will be diagnosed with autism. Many researchers point to the increase in diagnosis as nothing more than more accurate methods and increased awareness. They believe that the number was always about 1 in 100, but it was not reported. Although there is some truth to more accurate diagnosis, it does not account for such a meteoric rise. What’s more likely is that there has been some change in our environment over the last 20 to 25 years that, in combination with a more accurate system of diagnosis, has caused the number of autistic children to rise to epidemic proportions.
Autism involves poor social and verbal functioning accompanied by a host of other issues that range from poor digestion to fixed and repetitive behaviors. Also included in the Autistic Spectrum Disorders is a series of problems with fine or gross motor control, all of which can have a devastating effect on a family. The range is so broad in fact that many scientists and healthcare professionals often do not agree on a diagnosis. What is presently known is that this condition can cause subtle developmental delays or profound issues that can require long-term care is specialized facilities. The dichotomy is obvious, but there seems to be a link between the two. This link is vitamin D.
There are many proposed causes of autism. Most agree that there is some genetic predisposition. This has been suggested because of the increased frequency of autism that tends to occur in families and in studies of identical twins. Although there is a genetic link, it is also accepted that some environmental trigger must occur to cause autism. The majority of scientists have come to a consensus that identifies both genetic and environmental factors as being relevant in the cause of autism. Many theories have focused on environmental toxins, especially heavy metals, as a culprit in autism. Another theory is low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy and infancy.
Many times when speaking about autism people are very confused by the recent rise in autism diagnoses. Most times,
people rightly point out that a purely genetic theory makes no sense because our genes certainly are not any different than they were 20 years ago. They also make the point that our environment, while different, is not significantly different than it was 20 years ago. If both of these previous statements are true, and I believe they are, then what could possibly be causing the rise in the diagnosis of autism? Dr. John Cannell, a leading researcher in vitamin D has a theory. He agrees that genetically we are the same today as we were 20 years ago and that the environment, while altered, is not so significantly altered to cause an epidemic of autism. He argues that our behavior with regard to our environment has changed. He states that these changes have had an effect on our nervous systems that can and does account for a rapid rise in autism diagnoses.
Our understanding of what vitamin D does in our body has exploded in recent years. Although most physicians know that vitamin D is critical for healthy bones, most do not know about its other benefits. Vitamin D is critical for a healthy heart. It has been shown that it is critical in preventing many forms of cancer. We know that it regulates the immune system by keeping it prepared but also keeping it from overreacting. Vitamin D is a potent anti-inflammatory. It has also been shown that the active form of vitamin D, called calcitriol, is an important neurosteroid hormone. A neurosteroid hormone is a compound that is extremely important for brain development and behavior. Calcitriol is a potent neurosteroid that controls brain cell growth and acts on brain cells from the time of conception. Recent research has suggested that vitamin D offers “neuroprotection, antiepileptic effects [antiseizure effects], immunomodulation, impact on several brain neurotransmitter systems and hormones as well as regulation of behaviors.” The last statement makes it very obvious that vitamin D is critical for pregnant mothers, newborns and children alike.
The question remains, however. What could have possibly changed so greatly in the past 20 years that it would account for the rapid rise in autistic cases? Dr. Cannell believes it is a simple answer. He believes that in an effort to reduce our risk for skin cancer we have created a very serious deficiency in vitamin D. Remember, it is through the sun’s UV rays that most of our vitamin D is produced in the body. By lathering up with sunscreen every time we go out side, we block those UV rays from ever reaching our skin, thus preventing synthesis of the all important vitamin D. Dr. Cannell also believes that because we have become a much more sedentary society that we do not get outside nearly as much as we used to. And is this so hard to believe? Twenty years ago marks the real beginning of home video game systems. Cable television was still in its infancy 20 years ago. The iPod did not exist and hand held electronic games were not nearly as popular and complex as they are today. So this, in combination with sunscreen, creates a dangerous, yet easily overlooked scenario.
So what evidence links autism with vitamin D deficiency? Is it more that just a coincidence? Calcitriol acts as a molecular switch in brain tissue that turns on favorable genes that facilitate brain development. In fact, there are about 1,000 genes already known that are targets of calcitriol. Vitamin D is unique in that is it the only vitamin that relies on the sun for its production rather than dietary intake. Because pregnant women are getting into the sun less and less they require more and more to be taken orally. Unfortunately, the prenatal vitamins that most women take are far too low in vitamin D to be of any benefit. From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies are not used to getting the majority of our vitamin D from a pill. It is used to getting massive amount from the sun. The skin’s production of vitamin D is far more effective than ingesting it orally. Take the following into consideration; in just 10-40 minutes of sunbathing by a fair skinned adult about 20,000 IUs of vitamin D will be produced over the next 24 hours. It is important to note that the FDA claims 400 IUs per day through diet is sufficient for health. There is quite a difference between 20,000 and 400. Now consider this; in order to get 20,000 IUs from diet, one would have to drink 200 glasses of milk or take 50 prenatal multivitamins. Obviously neither of those is a viable option.
Dr. Cannell points out that people have been avoiding the sun for the past 20 years. It is exactly in the last 20 years that we have noticed a rapid rise in the diagnosis of autism. Now, just because the rise in autism parallels a decrease in sun exposure in industrialized nations does not necessarily mean it is a cause and effect relationship. There are other astounding biochemical reasons this theory makes sense. A very large amount of animal studies have shown just how crucial calcitriol is to brain health. In rats, it has been shown that the offspring of vitamin D deficient mothers had abnormal cell growth, structure and functions in their brains and alterations in learning and memory. A group of French researchers found that 36 important brain proteins are disrupted when vitamin D is deficient during fetal development. We discussed earlier that vitamin D is a potent anti-inflammatory. Often in autism, children have problems with immune function similar to those affected by vitamin D – including increased inflammatory cytokine levels. These high levels of inflammatory cytokines cause oxidative stress in the brain and are known to cause cognitive impairment. Vitamin D reduces this oxidative stress on the brain. Calcitriol also helps increase levels of glutathione in the brain. Glutathione is a critical antioxidant for detoxification. This may explain the link between heavy metals and autism. Without the calcitriol, children cannot actively detoxify the small amounts of heavy metals that accumulate in their body on a daily basis. In time, this results in a toxic load that retards brain development. As we can see, there are many reasons why vitamin D is important for proper brain function. It serves to regulate nerve cell growth, it regulates protein structure, it regulates the immune system and it regulates oxidative stress that may damage brain cells.
So now the question is, how much vitamin D do I need? This is a good question. Most people cannot obtain enough vitamin D through diet. Ideally, a good blood level of vitamin D is 50-60 ng/mL. This can be measured through a simple test. In order to get to that number most people will have to supplement their diet with a quality form of vitamin D. Generally speaking, we start adults on at least 2,000 – 4,000 IUs per day and recheck the levels in 2-3 months. Recent research indicates that even that might not be enough (remember we are told the standard for Americans for adequate health is 400 IUs). Children over 1 year of age can safely take at least 1,000 IUs but we usually start at 800 IUs and check the levels in 2-3 months. Vitamin D is very safe to take and as a matter of fact, the risk of not having enough far out weighs the risk of vitamin D toxicity. In fact, if vitamin D is taken responsibly, the risk of toxicity is virtually zero. Should you have any questions regarding vitamin D supplementation, please contact you health care professional and talk to them about vitamin D.