The month of April coincidentally brings us Autism Awareness Month and the beginning of “vitamin D” season. You may ask, “Coincidentally? How are autism and vitamin D related?” The answer may surprise you.
Autism on the Rise
Over the past couple decades, an alarming number of children—in the United States and other industrialized countries—have been diagnosed with autism, a group of complex brain disorders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently estimated that an astounding 1 in 68 American children has an autism spectrum disorder (1). (The March 28, 2014 CDC report is based on 2010 data when the sampled children were 8 years old. In 2008, the autism estimate was 1 in 88 children. In 2006, 1 in 110. You get the picture.)
The medical community’s views on why autism is increasing remain varied. Increased awareness in identifying and diagnosing children may contribute to the mounting prevalence of autism. Many believe genetics and environmental pollutants may serve as risk factors. Some think vitamin D deficiency may be linked to mounting cases of autism.
Is there a connection between the escalating incidences of autism and vitamin D deficiency? The link between autism and vitamin D is far from new to me and other vitamin D experts. But the association tends to be distant in the bureaucracy of conventional health care. Hence, I share my candid thoughts with you.
Diagnose and Treat Autism Sooner than Later
With 2014’s Autism Awareness Month clearly in mind, a major U.S. television network recently aired a news segment about the need for early diagnosis and treatment of autism in children. Children typically develop signs of autism by the time they are two years old. However, many children are diagnosed later, at age four years or older. The message was “diagnose and treat autism sooner than later.” The earlier children are diagnosed with autism, the better their odds of overcoming behavioral difficulties associated with the condition. While this general protocol has merit, it does not address how to prevent autism.
During the television broadcast I thought to myself, “Stop the disease before it can begin! If the biological parents had enough vitamin D in them prior to conception, there might not be autism!”
Several days later, the topic of the recent CDC report on autism cases was raised on Leslie Carol Botha’s weekly “Holy Hormones Honey! The Greatest Story Never Told” radio broadcast on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel. As one of Ms. Botha’s guests, I took the opportunity to reiterate my thoughts about vitamin D’s role in stopping autism before it begins.
Real-World Challenges of Autism
The diagnosis of autism presents a long list of social, economic, and health challenges. A toddler diagnosed with autism means that the quality of life for the child and his (or her) family will be affected by the disease every single day of their lives.
Real-world challenges often include special education, social support, self-sufficiency, and employability. Healthcare affordability also is a huge concern. Medical treatment primarily comprises decades of taking expensive prescription drugs. According to the Autism Society,the lifetime cost of caring for an autistic person ranges from a staggering $3.5 to $5 million.
My heart breaks when I think of the myriad daily challenges faced by millions of autistic persons and their families around the globe. There must be a way to thwart autism, and I believe vitamin D plays a part in the prevention.
Vitamin D’s Importance to Maternal Health
Autism probably is caused –at least in part—by genetic damage to a child’s developing brain. Every cell in the brain includes vitamin D receptors (VDR). The VDR control genes that influence brain development. In order to regulate gene expression, the VDR in the brain cells must be turned on by receiving adequate amounts of activated vitamin D. Without sufficient vitamin D to activate its receptors, the brain cannot properly develop. According to John J. Cannell, M.D., founder of the Vitamin D Council, the brain levels of activated vitamin D, “directly depend on the amount of vitamin D the mother makes in her skin or puts in her mouth.”
The Vitamin D Season and Environmental Factors
Epidemiological studies indicate that children born in winter and early spring are more likely to develop autism. The “vitamin D season” in the Northern Hemisphere occurs from April through September (2), the months when the earth is closest to the sun, affording us the opportunity to enjoy vitamin-D-producing sunlight.
Research also indicates that environmental factors likely affect the risk of developing autism. For example, the geographical location where a child is born may affect his risk of autism: a) the closer to the equator a child is born, the less likely his risk of autism, b) babies born in cities are twice as likely to develop autism than those born in rural areas, and c) children born in areas that endure heavy precipitation and frequent cloud cover are more likely to become autistic. A coincidence? Probably not.
Does Sunscreen Use Contribute to Autism?
The burgeoning prevalence of autism over recent decades also coincides with the advent of the “sun scare.” In 1989, the American Medical Association issued a warning to the public about the dangers of sunlight. The admonition caused millions of consumers to purchase and apply sunscreen products. The use of sunscreen denies the human body, including the brain, nature’s true source of vitamin D: ultraviolet B rays of the sun. Once again, a coincidence?
Decreasing the Odds of Autism
The correlation between the timing and location of a child’s birth and the risk of autism culminates in understanding the mother’s, and ideally the father’s, vitamin D health prior to conception and during pregnancy. No parent wants his/her child to develop autism. Biological parents can reduce their odds of having an autistic child by ensuring that their vitamin D levels are adequate prior to conception.
How do you know your vitamin D levels? Take a simple blood test (called 25-hydroxyvitamin D) that can be ordered from your healthcare professional or online testing services. Many healthcare plans cover all or most of the testing costs.
The blood test results serve as a starting point for vitamin D3 supplementation, ideally in concert with your healthcare practitioner. The “healthy” range of vitamin D levels remains a topic of debate in the global medical community. However, most vitamin D experts believe a healthy range is at least 50-80 ng/mL (125 – 200 nmol/L).
The majority of pregnant women reportedly have vitamin D levels less than 50 ng/mL. This statistic is not surprising as most prenatal vitamins only contain 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D3, a woefully inadequate daily dose. Women, who are of child-bearing age, pregnant, or lactating, and their male partners, should take at least 6,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily. By doing so, vitamin D can improve pregnancy outcomes and provide infants with vitamin D during nursing.
The bottom line: I believe that vitamin D deficiency is a risk factor for the development of autism. A coincidence? No. Can this risk be reduced by adequate vitamin D intake? Yes.
Footnote 1: The terms “autism spectrum disorder” and “autism” may be used interchangeably to describe a group of complex disorders of the brain, according to the May 2013 publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual. For sake of brevity in this article, the author chose the word “autism.”
Footnote 2: In the Southern Hemisphere the “vitamin D season” takes place from October through March.
Author’s Notes: The association between vitamin D and the treatment of autism is addressed in my award-winning vitamin D book Defend Your Life. Moreover, vitamin D’s health benefits stretch well beyond autism. I encourage you to explore this amazing nutrient’s benefits by empowering yourself with knowledge: search the web and visit my blog and hormonesmatter.com for rich vitamin D content.
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