Oxalates and Autism
“Our Autism Oxalate Project also was pleased to find improvements occuring in gross and fine motor skills, in speech and in growth, in stimming, and in many other areas commonly seen in autism.”
—Susan Owens, Autism Oxalate Project Leader
What are oxalates?
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
pain, especially to do with urination
problems with cognition
fatigue and low energy
and many more…
Oxalates get into the body through tiny cracks in the the lining of the intestines (aka leaky gut) and bind to all kinds of tissues causing a lot of damage, which is how they end up producing such a wide range of symptoms.
Oxalates Mess With:
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. And the research shows that 73-92% of ASD kids have messed up sulfur chemistry (Julie Matthews, Nourishing Hope for Autism).
How much of that is due to oxalate issues isn't known. But just as oxalate can mess up sulphur chemistry, it can work the other way too: messed up sulphur chemistry can lead to oxalate issues.
Oxalate is 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. Oxalate interferes in the functioning of the mitochondria by inhibiting mitochandrian enzymes which makes it harder for them to produce energy.
When your cells don’t make enough energy, it's hard to function. This leads to kids who are tired, even fatigued, and easily worn out!
Heavy Metals and Antioxident Production:
Oxalates are a double whammy for heavy metal toxicity. First, 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.
Second, oxalate also lowers glutathione production which is essential for detoxifying heavy metals. Without adequate glutathione, heavy metals can build up and cause further neurological problems.
Glutathione is the master antioxident and when it's low the body can't make other antioxidents which means there aren't enough antioxidents to fight off free radicals. These free radicals then damage cells all over the body (aka oxidative damage).
How do you get rid of Oxalates?
Gradually switching to a low oxalate diet (download The Guide for more detailed info) brings down the level of oxalates in the body which often decreases ASD symptoms.
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 symptoms can flare badly (and in very rare cases it can be deadly).
Once the oxalate level is low enough the body starts to release the oxalate stored in the tissues which typically increases the ASD symptoms temporarily. But this "dumping" is, in reality, a good sign because it means oxalates are leaving the body so they won’t be doing any more damage.
When you reduce oxalate in the diet you may have a "honeymoon period" where symptoms improve dramatically, which is then followed by a period of "dumping" (as explained above) which brings symptoms back. However, most families find that after a dump they notice even more gains than during the "honeymooon.”
Often supplements are needed too. When vitamin B6 is too low (and it often is in ASD) the body actually makes oxalate! So supplementing with B6 helps to curb this endogenous (from within the body) production. Biotin (B7) and Thiamine (B1) are also helpful in getting the body to release stored oxalates. Adequate calcium and magnesium intake are important too because oxalate will bind to these minerals, when present, instead of body issues.