Detoxification and Autism
All contents of this resource were created for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, therapist, or other qualified health providers with any questions or concerns you may have.
At first glance, many would think that autism and detoxication have nothing to do with one another. However, it has been shown that kids with autism have impaired detoxification. Furthermore, one in six children has a neurodevelopmental disability. Elevated levels of pollution in the air, water, and land, along with increased use of chemicals, have had a detrimental effect on our children. Shockingly, only 1% of chemicals we use today have been safety tested. Supporting detoxification through gentle methods can help kids with autism achieve greater health, better cognition, and improvements in behavior.
What is Detoxification?
Detoxification is the metabolic process of changing toxins into less toxic or more readily available excretable substances. Detoxification interventions are aimed at supporting the body’s ability to restore balance.
First, the detoxification process begins in the cell, goes to the liver, and finally, to an organ for excretion. Fat-soluble toxins enter the liver, go through two different phases of the liver, and exit the liver as water-soluble waste products. From here, they are eliminated from the body via the gall bladder to the bile to the stool. Similarly, toxins may be sent to the kidneys to be excreted in the urine.
Research shows us that oxidative stress is elevated in autism. This happens when there are too many free radicals in the body and not enough antioxidants to get rid of them. In fact, there are markers of oxidative stress in bloodwork to look for, including:
- High glutamic acid
- High Triglycerides or high total cholesterol
- Low B12
- Low ceruloplasmin
- Low folate (B9)
- Low glutathione
- Low Vitamin D
Giving glutathione, one of the body’s biggest antioxidants to treat oxidative stress can be helpful in some kids. However, the body needs to be able to recycle glutathione. Once the glutathione (GSH) oxidizes and becomes glutathione disulfide (GSSG), there is no more GSH left. In fact, if all of the GSH turns into GSSG, then the child’s immune system is impacted and will no longer functioning optimally.
Giving NADPH helps the body to recycle its glutathione because NADPH is a key component in energy metabolism and mitochondrial functions. NADPH takes oxidized glutathione and turns it into reduced glutathione. Additionally, NADPH is needed for folate for methylation. If you don’t have enough NADPH, we don’t methylate.
To support NADPH, doctors may prescribe Nicotinamide Riboside, Resveratrol, and Quercetin.
Methylation Cycle and Transsulfuration Pathways
In autism, we find that both methylation and transsulfuration pathways are often impaired. These are phase 2 liver processes that remove toxins from the body and produce the body’s #1 antioxidant, glutathione. However, toxins interfere with this pathway and thereby reduce the production of glutathione. In fact, blood tests are being studied that can diagnose kids with autism simply by measuring methylation and sulfation metabolites in their blood. These blood tests are amazingly accurate but not yet on the market.
To begin with, there are chemical reactions that take place within each cell. These provide energy for vital processes. Among thousands of metabolic reactions in the body, the methylation reaction is one of the most important and universal. It has numerous functions, including controlling inflammation, repairing genetic DNA and RNA, controlling neurotransmitters, and energy production. Methylation works to recycle glutathione, the body’s biggest antioxidant, which is needed to help the body detoxify.
By contrast, the transsulfuration pathway is the primary method of metabolizing sulfur-containing amino acids. Subsequently, it plays an essential role in providing cysteine to make glutathione.
For these reasons, measures to enhance methylation and transsulfuration detoxication processes may help kids with autism.
How do Toxins Affect Us?
Toxins alter our body’s pH balance. They turn the body more acidic. Consequently, this invites disease, parasites, improper digestion, and a whole host of other problems. Toxic substances also displace minerals. Likewise, heavy metals can make the body turn to self-protective measures. One example of this may be candida overgrowth in the gut. Therefore, if your child has uncontrolled fungal overgrowth, look into detoxication measures. In addition, the mitochondria, which produce energy, are very vulnerable to environmental factors. Some kids with autism have overactive mitochondria which makes them more susceptible to toxins.
Symptoms That may Indicate a Need for Detoxication
Hence, if you notice any of these symptoms in your child, detoxification measures may be helpful:
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Pale skin
- Cognitive Impairment or Confusion
- Slow GI motility
- Aggression and irritability
- Picky eating or food avoidance
- Low energy
- Speech impairment
- Failure to thrive
The first step in detoxication is removing the source of toxicity. This is an underestimated and truly important step. You cannot lower the body’s toxic load until you stop introducing toxins into the body. For more detailed information on avoiding and replacing toxic items in your life, please read TACA’s article titled Avoiding Toxins.
Best Ways to Detoxify
Above all, sleep is critical to healing. During sleep, the brain’s cerebral spinal fluid increases, washing away toxins that build up during waking hours. Because there is a correlation between sleep disorders and brain disease, children need deep, restful sleep. You can learn more about how to help your child sleep here.
Epsom Salt Baths
Another simple way to detoxify is with Epsom salt baths. To clarify, Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate. Using Epsom salt in a warm bath gives the benefit of allowing both magnesium and sulfate absorption through the skin. Studies show that ASD kids are low in sulfate. This is because they have trouble converting the less usable form, sulfite, to the more bioavailable form, sulfate.
Specifically, the sulfate in the Epsom salt goes to the liver, where it assists in sulfation. Sulfation is the process where toxins attach themselves to sulfate and are then excreted via sweat, urine, and stool. This pathway eliminates excess neurotransmitters, bacteria, some environmental toxins, drugs such as acetaminophen, and food dyes. You can find more information about Epsom salt here.
In the beginning, most parents start with 1/4 cup plain Epsom salt in a standard-size bathtub with warm water. Next, they work up to 1 cup per bath. Additionally, some large kids can tolerate up to 2 cups per bath. Kids sit in the bathtub for about 20 minutes. Otherwise, for those kids that will not sit in a bathtub, Epsom salt foot baths work as well.
Please note that a small subset of kids with autism experience increased hyperactivity with Epsom salt baths. In this case, your doctor may suggest going much slower by starting with a very small amount of Epsom salts in the bath, such as a tablespoon.
Keep Bowels Moving
When a child is constipated, old stool containing toxins that are meant to be excreted sit in the GI tract, fermenting and wreaking havoc. Furthermore, those toxins may leak into the bloodstream through perforations in the GI wall, also known as leaky gut. Undoubtedly, constipation is a leading reason for poor behavior in any child. Therefore, it is extremely important to deal with constipation before addressing other concerns. You can find TACA’s article on constipation here.
Support Both Phase 1 and Phase 2 Detoxification
Phase 1 liver detoxification requires a family of enzymes called cytochrome P-450. The following nutrients can help support phase one detoxification.
- Vitamin C – helps protect liver enzymes and liver tissue from oxidative damage.
- Vitamin E
- B vitamins
Phase 2 liver detoxification makes the toxic byproducts of phase 1 liver detoxication water-soluble, so they can be excreted. This process is known as conjugation. It is important to realize what the body needs for this process.
- Sulfate (Hence, Epsom salt baths)
- Amino Acids
- Glycine (which helps the body break down cytokines)
- L-Carnitine (which carries fat into the cell to be converted to energy)
- Methionine (inhibits oxidative stress)
- Taurine (defends the liver against free radicals and toxins)
- N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC), which is the precursor to glutathione
Eat Your Way to a Healthy Liver
Most importantly, foods that support the liver are:
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.
- Foods rich in B vitamins such as grass-fed beef, liver, and salmon.
- Foods rich in folate, such as leafy greens.
- Flavonoid rich foods such as beets and carrots.
- Vitamin C rich foods such as citrus.
- Foods that help the body make glutathione such as garlic, grapefruit, and asparagus.
- Foods from the allium family such as onion, garlic, and shallots.
- Foods rich in amino acids such as organic meat, salmon, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
In addition, foods high in antioxidants help with free radicals in the body.
- For example, blueberries, cranberries, green tea, dark chocolate with greater than 80% cocoa.
- Herbs including cinnamon, thyme, turmeric, ginger, parsley, and basil.
Support Cellular Function
Supporting detoxification at the cellular level is a significant part of the process. In order to do this, you need to open blocked pathways by supporting the mitochondria and methylation. In addition, certain herbs can support detoxification.
- Mitochondrial support
- Most mitochondrial supplements support the liver, thereby supporting detoxification. Here is the TACA article on mitochondrial dysfunction that lists the supports.
- Methylation support
- Methyl B12, folinic acid or 5MTHF, and B6.
- Herbal support
- Numerous herbs work to support detoxification including dandelion root, milk thistle, red clover, and turmeric.
- Many companies sell combination detoxification liquid tinctures that are fairly easy to take.
Always be sure to check with your child’s functional medicine doctor about the best products for your child’s particular needs.
Use Binders if Necessary
Occasionally, your functional medicine doctor may explain that you need to use binders to support detoxification or when you are treating bacterial or fungal overgrowth. Binders attach to toxins so that they can pass through the digestive tract without being reabsorbed in the gut. For instance, binders include:
- Activated Charcoal
- Modified Citrus Pectin
- Bentonite Clay
- Zeolites (both lab-produced and natural)
- Silica-rich spring water
- Humic and Fulvic Acids
There are a few essential things to note about binders. Accordingly, they must always be used keeping the following things in mind:
- Binders are constipating, so it is very important to ensure bowels are moving well before dosing and to give with plenty of water. For example, binders can make constipation problems much worse if you are not careful.
- Most binders come from the earth. As a result, they may be contaminated with heavy metals. For this reason, caution with sourcing is incredibly important. Always know where your product is sourced.
- Binders can bind to nutrients, so they should always be taken AWAY FROM food, other supplements, or medication. A good rule of thumb is at least an hour before or after a meal, supplements, or medication.
- While some doctors recommend binders preemptively, some do not, and this is not always a problem. Moreover, we need to be particularly careful with kids who already have nutrient deficiencies or low cholesterol because binders may deplete the body of minerals.
For more great information on using binders and easing the effects of detoxication, this article is very helpful.
Far Infrared Sauna
Using light to create heat, a far infrared sauna warms your body without warming the air. The skin is the body’s largest organ and its sweat glands help our skin filter toxins out of the body. Therefore, supporting detoxification through perspiration may be helpful for those kids that do not perspire or cannot exercise enough to work up a sweat.
Most functional medicine doctors can give a gentle protocol listing times and temperatures to follow with your child. However, it is important to inquire about the brand’s EMF levels. Close exposure to EMFs may cause a problem for sensitive individuals. Additionally, make sure to verify the glues used in construction are non-toxic.
The soles of the feet are especially porous, so ionic foot baths have become a popular method of detoxification. An ionic foot bath uses ions to charge the water and draw out toxins from the bottom of the feet. One ionic footbath company measured levels of glyphosate (Round-up) in urine before and after following a footbath protocol. Their data shows the footbath helped with glyphosate excretion. However, testimonials of improvement in children have proven to be the most compelling when considering the use of ionic foot baths. Before purchasing, please make sure you buy from a company that grounds all wires for safety. Above all, the company should be willing to give you your money back if you do not see improvement.
As a crucial part of the immune system, the lymphatic system removes bodily waste and carries white blood cells that aid in infection prevention. Lymphatic massage is a gentle type of massage that encourages the movement of lymph fluids to the liver. Consequentially, the fluids can then be processed and excreted. The following resources explain lymphatic massage thoroughly.
- This article details the benefits of lymphatic massage and how to safely massage to move lymph.
- This video gives a detailed explanation of how to do a lymphatic massage to relieve congestion.
Limit EMF Exposure
Electromagnetic fields are areas of energy that surround electronic devices. The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that electric fields are created by differences in voltage. Electric current flows create magnetic fields. According to WHO, electromagnetic fields affect us because our human bodies have their own electric and biochemical responses. For example, the nervous system, digestion, brain function, and heart function all use some kind of electric currents. Therefore, it stands to reason that exposure to EMFs may interact with your body in adverse ways. There is ongoing research in this area of study; however, many families report much better sleep, digestion, and focus when away from electromagnetic fields. For this reason, these interventions may help your child:
- Limit screen time.
- Unplug your router at night.
- If letting a child use a tablet, put it into airplane mode first.
In summary, detoxication is an important part of the healing process. Above all, be mindful of symptoms that may indicate a need for detoxication and learn about gentle methods to support it. Your functional medicine doctor should be able to guide you on your journey to a healthier, happier, and more independent child.