Glutathione: Master Antioxident and Key Player for Autism

Nutrients are a huge factor for ASD. There are many nutrient deficiencies at play for most ASD kids and supplementation can help a lot.

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Many kids with ASD have a lack of antioxidants, which means they have low levels of Vitamin C, A & E as well as low levels of glutathione, the master antioxidant — which is required to make the other antioxident vitamins. For some, this may be due to oxalate issues as I explained in this post. But whatever the reason, a lack of glutathione which is typically seen in ASD kids creates problems with immune function, detoxification, and oxidative damage (more on the science here).

Antioxidants are essential for combating free radicals which are molecules which cause damage to cells in the body. The body needs to be able to mop-up and get rid of those free radicals to continue to function well, but without antioxidants it can't get rid of the free radicals fast enough and damage to proteins, cells, and DNA occurs (also called oxidative damage).

So supplementation with the antioxidant vitamins — like high dose Vitamin C which has been shown to be very effective for some ASD kids — or even supplementing with glutathione itself can be hugely beneficial. Susan Levin talked about using glutathione injections with her ASD son in her book Unlocked. They used many different interventions but she wrote that the glutathione injections were so helpful in bringing her son back into connection and clarity that she wished they could plant a glutathione tree in their yard so they could juice up their son everyday — this was several years ago, now there are glutathione supplements that can be taken daily. Levin’s story is very powerful, and a great example of how by doing a lot of different things — diet, supplements, behavioral programs her son went from being completely in his own world and out of reach — never saying I love you, never responding to her — to a connecting, loving, caring child who could express himself and handle social situations without difficulties.

To find out more about what nutrients your child needs, you will need to find a practitioner who has in-depth knowledge about ASD and who can help you find the right nutrients for your child.

Oxalates: What does antifreeze have to do with Autism?

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We all know antifreeze is deadly when ingested. But what I didn't know, until recently that is, is what makes antifreeze deadly. When the chemicals in antifreeze enter the body they convert to a compound called oxalate. And at mega doses, like you’d find in antifreeze, oxalate is deadly.

It is also what has been clogging up my daughter’s body and has started a cascade of biological and physiological reactions that manifest in the behaviors and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder - or ASD.

Oxalates are found in most plant foods in varying amounts. Foods like rhubarb, spinach and sweet potatoes are very high in oxalates. And in most people oxalates pass through the body and/or they get broken down by their gut microbes and no harm is done. But in some people oxalates build up and cause kidney stones, and in others they build up and cause ASD symptoms including:

  • speech and motor skill delays

  • trouble with linguistic expression

  • lack of social awareness

  • rigidity

  • sleep problems

  • self-abusive behavior

  • pain, especially to do with urination

  • bed wetting

  • problems with cognition

  • fatigue and low energy

  • and many more…

And now to come back to my daughter. Imogen has always been “quirky” but she doesn’t have an official diagnosis — although I now see that much of her quirkiness is really ASD symptoms. She didn’t interact much with other kids as a toddler and wouldn’t go on the playground if there were any other children there. She was slow to learn to speak and didn’t speak clearly for a long time. She didn’t respond to questions from strangers at all and only sometimes responded to our questions. But she did play and interact with us and seemed to be doing fine. By the time she was 8 her teacher noticed that she was falling behind her peers socially — she told the same stories over and over and didn’t seem to be interested in what her peers had to say. Academically she was doing well, but socially it was a growing concern. At home she had tantrums and lashed out at her brother or stormed off during meals or any time she was upset. She didn’t seem to understand how her actions hurt others, instead thinking people were intending to hurt her. She had chronic loose bowels and a rash on her bottom that would not go away.

When she had an Organic Acids Test last fall, the results were very clear — her levels of oxalate were extremely high — 5 times higher than the average ASD child.

After a month of Low Oxalate Diet she had become a different child — the aggression had gone, she was talkative and told many stories about school — including who she was playing with at recess, she was able to be connected and contributing to the family life — following conversations, helping out, noticing if someone was sad or upset. Even her teacher thought this was a different child and said the other students could tell she was able to interact with them differently now. The bowels and the rash cleared up.

However oxalates are complicated, and it’s common for people to go on a Low Oxalate Diet and feel better — for a while. But then when oxalate levels in the blood get low enough the body starts dumping the stored oxalate into the blood stream, and people find the symptoms come back. However, in the long run this is what needs to happen to clear out the oxalates from the body — and when the dumping stops, people typically find that their child is doing even better than before dumping.

For us, after that first “honeymoon” period of one month Imogen’s body started dumping oxalates in massive amounts — she broke out in oxalate rashes, she peed them out constantly, they hurt her eyes and her back — all of which are common signs of the body dumping stored oxalates. And all of her ASD symptoms came back.

Her body is still processing the last 8 years worth of oxalate it has been storing, but with the right supplements now in place she her symptoms are reducing and she is starting to come back to us. She is rarely aggressive, and she is often connected and present with us — though she fades in and out — as does her ability to express herself. Sometimes she is bursting with self awareness and is able to tell us about what is going on for her with amazing clarity. Other times she repeats “Mom, Mom, Mom…what was I going to say…” And drifts away. But we are making progress, getting through all of the oxalates, and helping her body to heal.

And there’s a lot to heal from.

Oxalates also do a lot of damage in the body, which is how they end up producing such a wide range of symptoms. I’m going to get a little technical here, bear with me! I’ll try to make the science as clear as I can.

First up: Oxalates interfere with sulfur chemistry which means that kids with oxalate issues can have problem creating enzymes, proteins, and tissues — pretty basic necessities here. Sulfur chemistry is also responsible for the production of bile to digest fats, for detoxification, and for cellular respiration. So disturbances in all of these processes can occur when there is an oxalate issue. According to Julie Matthews, who wrote the book Nourishing Hope for Autism, the research shows that 73-92% of ASD kids have messed up sulfur chemistry.

Another way Oxalate does damage in the body is by being a mitochondrial toxin. This is important because mitochondria are a little part of a cell and their main job is to produce ATP which is the energy that all of our cells use to do things. It’s the coin of the realm and without it our cells don’t have enough energy and it’s hard to function when your cells don’t make enough energy. Oxalate inhibits mitochondrian enzymes which means that oxalate interferes in the functioning of the mitochondria, and you don’t make enough energy. This leads to kids who are tired, even fatigued, and easily worn out!

Next up: Oxalates like to join up with heavy metals like mercury and lead and then move out of the blood stream and into the body tissues, effectively trapping these toxins in the body. This isn’t the only way oxalate relates to heavy metal toxicity - which is so common in ASD — oxalate also lowers glutathione production — that’s the master antioxidant — it’s also essential for detoxifying heavy metals. Without adequate glutathione heavy metals can build up and cause further neurological problems. And as mentioned above, when glutathione is low it’s not available to fight off free radicals and cells get damaged due to oxidative stress.

And although all of this is tied to oxalates, it’s not just oxalates coming from the what you eat. It turns out that if you don’t have enough B6 (which as Bernard Rimland has shown is often low in ASD kids, and is why they react so well to being supplemented with B6) then your body actually produces oxalates! So some kids can’t process the oxalates they get from food which means they are in the blood stream producing symptoms, and oxalates are also clogging up their tissues sometimes causing pain, and now their bodies are also making more oxalate because they doesn’t have enough B6! It’s quite the cascade and it all turns on oxalates.

Fortunately, by switching to a low oxalate diet you can lower the blood level of oxalates which often decreases ASD symptoms. One family who participated in the initial oxalate and ASD study found that on switching to a low oxalate diet the child made impressive gains in speech, motor skills and cognition - as recognized by this teachers and therapists. He also lost some lingering autistic behaviors, grew 2 inches in 2 months, and his chronic diarrhea disappeared (it turns out that oxalates can be dumped in the stool as well and often results in sandy/fluffy loose stools).

However, as I explained with Imogen, once the oxalate level is low enough the body starts to release the stored oxalate which typically increases the ASD symptoms temporarily, but is, in reality, a good sign because it means oxalates are leaving the body so they won’t be doing any more damage. It’s important to switch to a low oxalate diet gradually, because the body starts to dump the stored oxalate. Cutting oxalates down too low too fast can cause a flood of oxalates in the body which it can’t handle and in very rare cases can be deadly (back to the antifreeze problem here). However, because of all of the other damage that oxalates have done in the body, supplements are often required to help the child heal fully.

It’s not clear if all children with ASD also have oxalate issues — this connection was only discovered in 2007 and more research needs to be done. But Susan Owens, a scientist who worked for DAN! and who is the one who discovered the role of oxalates in ASD believes that oxalates do play a big role for many children with ASD. And this is why: there is a test to check your child’s oxalate levels. It’s the same Organic Acids Test — or OAT test — I mentioned earlier. And it turns out that ASD kids on average have levels that are 7 times higher than their non-ASD siblings. But what Owens has found, is that even for ASD kids who do not have a high concentration of oxalates in their urine, when they go on a low oxalate diet, their symptoms improve. So they do better without oxalates even when the test doesn’t show high levels, which means that a low oxalate diet may help your child.

Diet Changes: Food Matters for Autism

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What we feed our kids is so important, and in the case of an ASD kid it’s often crucial for their wellbeing. Being sure that you have eliminated any food allergies or intolerances is a good place to start, but further diet changes often help ASD kids. For instance, around 65% of them have their symptoms improve on a diet that eliminates both gluten and casein (that’s the proteins found in wheat & dairy products). And according to Julie Matthews for one two-and-a-half-year-old boy with ASD it was the difference between talking and not talking. He went from saying zero words to saying 200 words after 3 months on a Gluten-Free & Casein-Free diet. So it’s a good place to start for a lot of ASD kids.

Then there’s the Specific Carbohydrate Diet which eliminates all grains and many other foods based on the type of carbohydrate they contain with the aim being to eliminate those carbs that may be increasing bad bacteria in the gut. This diet is reported to work for about 65% of ASD kids. Then there are diets like the Body Ecology Diet which focuses on eliminating yeast in the gut and encourages large amount of vegetables, or the GAPS diet which also focuses on gut health and uses a lot of bone broth and meat. Then there are further tweaks that might help your child like eliminating Phenols and Oxalates, and often these diets get mapped onto each other, so you might be doing a gluten-free casein-free diet with low phenols and low oxalates.

Just saying that out loud probably sounds daunting to some of you, but taken one step at a time you can get there. One child on a gluten-free, casein-free, Specific Carbohydrate Diet, Body Ecology Diet was doing much better, but continued to rock after every meal. He added low oxalate to his already complex diet and the stimming and rocking went away immediately.

It’s stories like this and seeing improvements in your child that will help give you the confidence to keep going. And you are not alone there are thousands of people doing diets just like this — maybe not anyone you know, but look around online, there are lots of resources and support and help. It is possible.