Vitamin D and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Vitamin D has become popular in the last few years due to its role in cancer prevention. More recently, doctors in Sweden have pointed to a possible link between vitamin D deficiency and autism. The idea that vitamin D deficiency may have a link to autism isn’t that big of a stretch considering that vitamin D deficiency is emerging in scientific literature as a possible culprit in a wide range of diseases.

In fact, Dr. John Cannell, an American doctor and Executive Director of the Vitamin D Council, connects vitamin D deficiency not only to autism, but depression, mental illness and a variety of other problems that plague our modern society.

Vitamin D and Autism

A unique aspect of vitamin D is that it is a nutrient that can be synthesized by the human body from our skin through the action of sunlight. Dr. Cannell contends that autism rates have skyrocketed since the late 1980s when in the interest of public health, medical experts advised us to avoid continued exposure to bright sunshine. It was then that sun avoidance and/or application of sunscreen was promoted to prevent skin cancer. However, that advice may have had the unintended consequence of making a large segment of the population vitamin D deficient.

Why We Need Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps the gut absorb calcium, which most people know is needed by bones and teeth need to grow and stay strong. But Vitamin D also has a role in various biological processes within the nervous, muscular and immune systems. Since sensory processing disorders, low muscle tone, brain inflammation and other immunity problems are common in many children with autism, it is worth investing research dollars into understanding  vitamin D’s role and its association to neurobehavioral disorders.

There are three main areas of human growth and development where vitamin D could have a direct impact on the development of Autism Spectrum Disorders: (1) the brain (2) immune system and (3) gene expression.

The Brain
Vitamin D receptors are present in the central nervous system, which is composed of the brain and spinal cord. Studies show that vitamin D protects nerves against toxic damage and has a positive effect on neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body. This relationship may play a role in brain development, sensory processing and mood regulation.

The Immune System
The healthy human body is equipped with a powerful set of tools for resisting the onslaught of invading microorganisms (such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites). Unfortunately, this set of biological tools, known as the immune system, sometimes goes awry and attacks the body instead of its invaders. This misdirected immune response is referred to as autoimmunity. Studies suggest that immune abnormalities, mainly autoimmunity to brain tissue, may also have a role in the development of autism in a subgroup of patients.

Vitamin D deficiency has also been implicated as an environmental factor that may trigger immune-related conditions, including allergies, food sensitivities and autoimmunity.  This may explain why many children with neurobehavorial disorders have various food sensitivities (i.e. reactions to gluten and casein).

Vitamin D has been shown to strengthen the body’s innate immune system by inducing a production of proteins with natural antibiotic actions that can combat bacterial and viral infections and thereby reduce inflammation throughout the body.

Gene Expression
Another biological action of vitamin D involves regulating the expression of more than 200 genes as a child grows in the womb. Studies have found adverse effects on fetal brain development during the third trimester of pregnancy related to vitamin D deficiency, including increased risk of schizophrenia and language difficulties. Proper levels of Vitamin D might reduce the risk of autism by diminishing the occurrence of random mutations of DNA thus keeping these mutations from influencing the development of the fetus.

Low maternal vitamin D level is a risk factor for premature delivery and statistics show that the risk of autism increases with each week a baby is born early. One paper suggests that Vitamin D deficiency–either during pregnancy or early childhood– may allow the genetic tendency for autism to express itself.

Several recent studies show that vitamin D deficiency is common among children with autism. However, the “vitamin D theory” of autism does not diminish other genetic and environmental contributions to autism occurrence. While current findings do not prove that taking vitamin D reduces the risk of autism, the theory is strong enough that further research is warranted to determine if symptoms may be reduced by treating a deficiency.


Read the next post in this series “Maintaining Vitamin D Levels in Autism“.


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This post is an excerpt from the ebook: E.A.T. An Italian Mother’s Guide to Going Casein-free in Autism Spectrum Disorders now available on Amazon.


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Doctors eye vitamin D link to autism

Researcher sees link between vitamin D, autism

Vitamin D and Autism

Vitamin D and Autism

Etiopathogenesis of autism spectrum disorders: fitting the pieces of the puzzle together

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