Recent years has seen an unprecedented rise in autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although researchers speculate on the reason for this rise, many factors likely contribute. However, overwhelming evidence suggests that nutritional deficiencies may be an important factor.
Omega-3 fatty acids are key
Our brain and nerves are composed mostly of fat. The most important of these are called omega-3 fatty acids
and are found primarily in fish or fish oil supplements. Also called EPA and DHA, they are absolutely necessary
for human health, and their concentration in the brain makes them key players in neurological disorders such as
autism and ADHD. Brain and nerve growth throughout childhood is extraordinarily rapid, and the need for
omega-3 fatty acids remains critical all the way through adolescence and into adulthood. Overwhelming evidence
implicates deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids for the rise in autism and ADHD. Research shows that children with
low scores on behavioral assessment tests consistently have lower omega-3 fatty acids levels, and when supplemented
with fish oils, the symptoms of ADHD in these children such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and inability to pay
attention – dramatically improve.
Omega-3 to omega-6 ratio
We are familiar with the expression that a child’s brain is like a sponge, ready to absorb information at an astounding
rate. A truly appropriate analogy, it stems from the fact that our brains can actually create nerve pathways in
response to new experiences and learning environments. Called “neuronal plasticity,” this phenomena is crucial for
long-term memory and learning. Proper levels of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is important
for membrane fluidity. The ratio of omega-6 fatty acids, which differ in structure and function, to omega-3 fatty acids
affect neuronal plasticity as well. Scientists now agree that the ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats is as important as
the actual levels, especially in autism and ADHD. A lower ratio is better and when this ratio is improved, symptoms of
autism and ADHD can improve as well.
Vitamins and autism
Low levels of vitamin D have been linked with autism and in some cases of severe deficiency, high-dose vitamin D
therapy actually reversed some of the autistic behaviors. Some research even suggests that the nutritional status of
the mother during gestation can affect behavior in children. One study confirmed that low folate status in pregnancy
was associated with hyperactivity in children. Other studies show that persons who carried a common gene that
predisposes them to folate and vitamin B12 deficiency (called the MTHFR gene) were more likely to suffer from ADHD. Supplementation with thiamine (vitamin B1) has shown clinical benefit to some autistic children. Specifically, a deficiency in vitamin B1 has been associated with delayed language development in childhood.When deficient, biotin (vitamin B7) can potentially cause neurological problems associated with autism since the brain is quite vulnerable to biotin deficiency.
Magnesium and vitamin B6: a winning combination
Like most nutrients, magnesium and vitamin B6 work together in improving clinical symptoms of autism and ADHD. When a group of autistic children were supplemented with magnesium and vitamin B6, 70% of the children showed improvement in social interaction and communication. Interestingly, when the supplements were stopped, the clinical
symptoms reappeared. In another study, physical aggression and inattention improved after supplementation with
magnesium and vitamin B6 for a few months.
ADHD and autism: an oxidative stress disorder?
Oxidative stress is a term used to describe damage to our cells that occurs on a daily basis throughout our bodies. Fortunately, our bodies have built-in defenses against the onslaught of internal and external toxins causing oxidative stress in our tissues. Interestingly, several studies show an increase in oxidative stress in both autism and ADHD, resulting in an impaired ability to eliminate toxins. Specifically, adults with ADHD have extremely low levels of some of the most powerful antioxidants in the body. One study linked damage in fatty tissue surrounding our cells to symptoms of autism and ADHD. Minerals such as selenium and copper, antioxidants such as cysteine and vitamin E and several other nutrients ensure the body’s powerful defense systems work optimally.
Since so many nutrients are needed to keep our amazingly complex brain and nervous system functioning properly,
a comprehensive assessment of your nutritional status is key. In disorders like autism and ADHD, the potential
improvement of symptoms when even a single deficiency is corrected can often be quite dramatic.