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Examining the relationship between vitamin D and autism

Posted on: April 26, 2012   by  John Cannell, MD


In a recent clinical review on autism and vitamin D, Dr. Eva Kocovska and colleagues from the University of Glasgow called for “urgent research” on vitamin D’s role in autism.

Kočovská E, Fernell E, Billstedt E, Minnis H, Gillberg C. Vitamin D and autism: Clinical review. Res Dev Disabil. 2012 Apr 20;33(5):1541-1550. [Epub ahead of print]

The body of the paper consisted of a review of the 35 papers published to date that deal directly with autism and vitamin D. Here were their areas of interest and the studies they reviewed.

On vitamin D blood levels

Four studies have looked at vitamin D levels in autistic children or their mothers and all have found low levels (<30 ng/ml) in autistic children. One found no difference in vitamin D levels between autistic children and boys with acute inflammation (a curious control), while the other three found differences, some significant and some not. One study found Somali mothers with autistic children had average vitamin D levels of 6.7 ng/ml, about 30% lower than Somali mothers without autistic children.

On vitamin D intake

The authors examined about a dozen papers that looked at vitamin D intake in autistic children, all finding that most autistic children do not meet vitamin D intake requirements for their age. On a side note, the authors also mention that magnesium has a crucial role in brain development and function. As readers know, magnesium deficiencies are the rule, not the exception in most Americans.

On brain development and function

The authors reviewed the numerous ways vitamin D is involved in brain development and function, including:

  • Synaptic development
  • Nerve migration and growth
  • Neurotransmission, both excitatory and inhibitory
  • Preventing excessive cell proliferation
  • Orchestrating signaling pathways in the brain
  • Cell differentiation
  • Nerve growth factor expression
  • Regulation of inflammatory cytokines
  • Neurotransmitter synthesis
  • Intra-neuronal calcium signaling
  • Anti-oxidant activity
  • Control of the expression of genes involved in brain structure and metabolism
  • Regulation of glutathione, the master antioxidant and heavy metal remover
  • Protection from glutamate toxicity

On autism, vitamin D and seizures

I was surprised at the number of studies showing the connection between vitamin D, seizures and autism. Up to 30% of children with autism have seizures, and it may be as easy as giving a vitamin D supplement to reduce seizures.

On breastfeeding

A recent study showed in a statistically significant finding that in States where exclusive breastfeeding is the highest, autism incidence is also the highest. Remember, unless the mother takes 5,000 IU/day and has a vitamin D level > 40 ng/ml, breast milk contains little vitamin D.

Yes, as I have been saying since 2006, there is a need for “urgent research in the field.”

2 Responses to Examining the relationship between vitamin D and autism

  1. [email protected]

    Austism is exploding!
    I think if you see the graph which includes the 2012 report from the CDC you will agree.
    1 in 5,000 reported 37 years ago
    1 in 2,500 reported 27 years ago
    1 in 500 reported 17 years ago
    1 in 160 reported 7 years ago
    1 in 88 reported this year
    Actually most likely much worse now – since is reporting on a study was made in 2008, 4 years ago.
    Also – the above numbers are for whites.
    The CDC reported a huge increase in black autism in their 2008 study,

  2. Mark Richards

    In report after report, the common theme continues to point towards clear and indisputable evidence that Vitamin D deficiency is a public health crisis in the US. The “yawn” of response from alleged public health professionals and decision-makers in government and medicine suggest strongly that public health, and the medical ethic, has lost its way. “Do no harm” is out the window. If this simple precept were observed in this one instance, an effective and safe regimen of Vitamin D supplementation would be undertaken as a matter of our national health, with the same urgency as when the whim of “national security” prompts us to drop bombs on other nations. Instead, we pump all manner of drugs, including an over-use of vaccines, to stave off the diseases which a strong immune system and healthy organism has a good chance of doing on its own.

    In several instances, one which is quite active, inquiring on my own as to what happened to “Do no Harm” meets puzzled expressions and little cooperation. Instead I find a solid wall of arrogance, the kind of know-it-all arrogance that medical schools cram into the psyche of their students. This question, in many forms, has been repeatedly shut out or is danced around with “grey area” excuses, endlessly regurgitated in “ethics” discussions at universities. No matter the question, in medicine there’s an inner sanctum where discussions are of such a high intellectual nature that mere mortals who ask pesky questions ought not go. It is this attitude where I find the greatest need for a solid steel pry-bar – to open the door and allow some simple, solid questions inside.

    Reading the continuing mound of evidence which stacks up in favour of taking action on Vitamin D on a national level (and this is just one small area in the broad field of public health) and seeing that absolutely nothing is done except for the hard, slow, uphill efforts of Dr. Cannell and others, suggests to me that it is way past the time where the citizens need to demand that the profession open up, clean itself from the rampant and corrupt commercial and government interests that forms its life blood, and change. This will not happen voluntarily. It will require people to organize, refuse to take substandard anymore, and force it. It will also take new physicians to be won over to the concept, and to – at great risk to their careers – fight from the inside.

    Other than the great work of the Vitamin D Council, I’d like to hear from others if you consider my premise useful, and actionable. If there were a way to begin such an effort, and it could be focused on a prime issue which might catch the (short) attention of the public, perhaps it will be a useful tool for change.

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