Home > Got Questions?, Science > Can vitamins, minerals and other supplements relieve autism symptoms?

Can vitamins, minerals and other supplements relieve autism symptoms?

This week’s “Got Questions” answer comes from pediatric psychiatrist Joseph Horrigan, M.D., Autism Speaks assistant vice president, head of medical research.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common among those with autism, and in many cases, they relate to overly restricted eating habits. This is understandable as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are commonly associated with gastrointestinal problems and sensory issues with food textures and smells. It is also possible that the underlying biology of autism may cause deficiencies in the digestion of certain foods, which could affect vitamin intake. For example, a recent study documented that some children with autism and gastrointestinal disturbances have impaired carbohydrate digestion.

Normal growth and good health depend on the body absorbing and metabolizing the vitamins and minerals that are part of a well-rounded diet. In addition, studies have identified several examples of nutrient deficiencies affecting thinking and behavior – for example, the ability to focus or stay alert in school. Also, nutrient deficiencies such as those involving omega 3 fatty acids may worsen behavioral symptoms such as irritability and hyperactivity. As such, it’s entirely possible that taking supplements may improve such symptoms in some individuals with ASD – especially if the individual has clinical or laboratory evidence of low levels of crucial vitamins, minerals or other nutrients.

In recent years, researchers have looked deeper into how well particular vitamins, minerals and nutritional supplements lessen the severity or intensity of core autism symptoms – namely communication difficulties, social challenges and repetitive behavior. The results of these clinical studies have been mixed.

One recent large study examined the effect of an over-the-counter supplement called Syndion on 141 children and adults with autism, as compared to the effects of a placebo pill. The researchers reported that the product effectively raised levels of vitamins and minerals in the blood. They also showed that it produced no significant side effects during the 12-week study. The study did not demonstrate meaningful improvements in autism symptoms according to three out of the four assessment tools used. It did, however, show modest but statistically significant improvements on a fourth measure (the Parental Global Impressions-Revised questionnaire) in terms of hyperactivity, tantrums and receptive language.

When interpreting the meaningfulness of these results, readers may take note that the two lead authors were also the developers of the commercial product being tested.

Despite the limitations of this study, it raises important questions as to whether vitamins may be helpful in addressing the core symptoms of autism. It is important to continue supporting research that will provide parents and individuals with clear answers about the value of vitamins, minerals and other nutritional supplements in ASD. Autism Speaks is currently funding several projects to this end, including a new study investigating the possible role of carnitine deficiency in some individuals with ASD. (Carnitine is a nutrient used by cells to process fats and produce energy. It is abundant in red meat and dairy products, but some individuals appear to have difficulties absorbing and/or metabolizing it.)

We are also funding an ongoing collaborative project, through five Autism Treatment Network sites, to collect extensive information on the dietary intake and nutritional status of children with ASD.

If you are worried that you or your child may have a nutritional deficiency, supplements may be a good option to consider. It is important that you consult with your doctor about brands and dosages. Supplements vary in quality and potency, and some may have harmfully excessive levels of certain vitamins, minerals or other ingredients.

Explore more of the studies we’re funding through our grant search, and find more news and perspective on the Autism Speaks science page.

  1. February 3, 2012 at 4:38 am

    I’m glad that this topic has been covered. It is important to note that the Jim Adams paper on the vitamin/mineral supplement represented the ‘gold standard’ in experimental design, being randomised, double-blind and placebo-controlled. As for the potential ‘conflicts of interest’, the study was registered with the NIH (ClinicalTrials.gov) and so there would have been an emphasis on the author’s publishing their results no matter what they found.

    Noting also some pretty interesting work suggesting quite a high rate of iron deficiency: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11918106 and zinc deficiency: http://www.nature.com/srep/2011/111103/srep00129/full/srep00129.html in some cases of autism, there is some reasoning why such a supplement might be useful in some cases bearing in mind your important caveat of consulting first with a child’s physician.

    Outside of the Brent Williams paper on carbohydrate metabolism and gut dysbiosis (following on from another trial which reported lactase deficiency in over 50% of children with autism included for study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21415091 ), there is a growing interest in the whole issue of deficiency and why deficiency might be present. I note related to their recent Sutterella findings, the same group also talk about ‘leaky gut’ as being one potential avenue for inquiry: http://mbio.asm.org/content/3/1/e00261-11.full This on the back of a very methodologically sound paper on detecting leaky gut in about a third of cases of autism looked at by De Magistris and colleagues: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20683204

    Many thanks.

  2. Thank you
    February 3, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Thank you Dr. Joseph Horrigan for sharing.

    Thank you Paul Whiteley for your further illumination. By the way, I enjoy your blog very much. You are a fabulous writer.

    Questioning Answers

    http://questioning-answers.blogspot.com/

    Some samples

    http://questioning-answers.blogspot.com/2012/01/household-chemicals-and-immunity.html

    http://questioning-answers.blogspot.com/2012/01/epigenetics-101-and-autism.html

  3. Amelia Villafranca
    February 3, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I am by no means a scientist, researcher, or writer but I am a mother with an autistic son. And in trying to figure out how to help him with the meltdowns and other symptoms I felt in my heart one day to begin to give him fish oil and a multivitamin and later added vitamin E. All the Glory be to GOD because I feel like He lead me in this direction. You see I was in denial for so long and I wouldn’t even read about autism. But my GOD is good and merciful He knew my son’s pain and mine. All this to say that it has made a huge difference with his behavior and we have noticed his vocabulary has increased and he no long repeats things over and over. It made sense to give him the supplements because he did not eat like we did and his choices of food were so limited because of smell and texture. Everyone is different what works for some may not work for others just like medication some work on some people and some don’t but it’s worth a shot. Thank you all who work hard to discover what will work. May GOD Almighty who knows all and nothing is hidden from give you all the wisdom, revelation and knowledge. Blessings to all.

    Amelia

    • Tina Rhodes
      February 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm

      SO TRUE!!! My son is saying things we thought we’d never hear.We gave him fish oil but start causing him bowel problems.I double dose his multivitamin,Vitamin C,and now this digestive enzyme. Does you boy only eat chicken nuggets and french fries? craves sugar? Tina

      • Amelia Villafranca
        February 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm

        Tina, Yes my son would only eat chicken nuggets and french fries. He does not crave sugar except coco pebbles. and he eats a lot of chef BoyRDee rice and chicken and rice and beans. Thank GOD he has never had digestive problems. On another note I read an article the other day on how some of these fast food restaurants make their chicken nuggets and patties and it was gross and I know this is not helping our kids. So now I don’t buy unless I know it’s clean and only chicken, Here is the article it was sent to me on facebook but then later I saw it on the news,
        Say hello to mechanically separated chicken. It’s what all fast-food chicken is made – things like chicken nuggets and patties. Also, the processed frozen chicken in the stores is made from it.

        Basically, the entire chicken is smashed and pressed through a sieve — bones, eyes, guts, and all. it comes out looking like this.

        There’s more: because it’s crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia, soaked in it, actually. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be re flavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color.

        Also I had my son checked for a gluten allergy and he tested positive.

      • Tanya
        February 3, 2012 at 5:26 pm

        Same for my autistic son. Started giving him cod liver oil, multivitamins and other supplements and it helped. He is speaking very well now. Yes, he wants mainly chicken nuggets, french fries, pizza and spaghetti. Craves sweets. This is common in autistic children. His behavior improves when he eats healthier.

  4. Another ASD Dad
    February 3, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Based on medical labs and severe deficiencies, my son diagnosed with autism was tested and treated with supplements. We also removed food allergens. The process to see progress took about 2 years.

    This process was well worth every ounce of effort. His behaviors improved, sleep cycle normalized, his bowel movements were more regular and “normal” and he went from non verbal and started talking.

    Of all things autism (interventions and therapies) supplements and avoiding allergens are the cheapest intervention and improved my child’s health. Which in the long run helped lessen his ASD symptoms.

    Parents: Find a doctor that is willing to test and treat not mask symptoms. It is worth the time and effort.

  5. Sarah
    February 6, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    My son is functioning much better b/c I supplement him with probiotics and a natural anti-inflammatory (Lutimax). I think therapy (OT, PT and language) is not enough. The core symptoms (GI and brain inflammation, dysbiosis, immune dysfunction, mito dysfunction) also have to be addressed and so far the mainstream medical community hasn’t come up with a protocol to address underlying medical problems. Unless the underlying core symtpkms are addressed, a child may continue to function poorly or progress very slowly.

    Many autism parents feel the need to take action (ie treat with supplements) because we cannot afford to wait for the medical community to figure out how to treat autism. We have a window of time to heal our kids. This is why we supplement and why many of our kids are making such good progress.

    Not treating the underlying medical problems associated with autism to me is akin to not giving a diabetic insulin. I strongly urge the medical community to come up with a protocol for our kids even if the protocol has to be tailored.

    • Sarah
      February 7, 2012 at 6:50 am

      I second Sarah-Blue :). I see no need to add an almost verbatim post, if my alter-ego has already been here first.

      Which form of Lutimax?

      Sarah-Red

    • February 7, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      Sarah & Sarah, Sorry to disappoint you but the main reason the medical professions have been slow to take action with supplements is simply that they treat autism problems as a medical problem. When they use supplements they use them only if found to be low and the level is usually a therapeutic dosage which could be excessive to the needs for the brain. According to my years of research, the problem is not medical but is due primarily to environmental problems including the diet. The full range of nutrient requirements of the brain should be the basis for supplementation but only if the levels of all the nutrients are also known. Fortunately this can be determined quite simply and inexpensively if it is considered to be other than a medical problem.

      • Sarah
        February 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm

        The medical profession treats autism as a behavioral/ developmental disorder they don’t address the physiological/medical aspects at all much less the environmental aspects. Many autism, parents have tried to get help their childrens for chronic GI pain and GI distress only to dismissed by Doctors. See some of the Blog posts under GI and autism article. Doctors don’lt even bother to test the kids. According to UC Davis researchers, that many ASD kids have an underlying mitochondrial problem. I asked my sons neurologist for metabolic test to see if my son has a problem with cellular energy metabolism (mitochondria) and was denied.

        Children with autism have been found to have:

        Mitochondrial dysfunction
        Brain Inflammation
        GI imbalance and inflammation

        So why isn’t the medical community screening ASD kids for these underlying problems??
        Youi canot therpaise away an unerlying medical problem.

    • February 17, 2012 at 12:02 am

      Have a look at Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride for a very comprehensive nutritional protocol that has helped and healed many ASD and more.

  6. Sarah
    February 7, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Hi Sarah – Red.

    To help with brain inflammtion, I’ve have my son on Lutimax tablets. He been taking them for about 8 months now and it’s helped a lot. Lutimax addresses overactive microglia and acts to stabilize the brains immune response. Great product. He’s also on a probiotic called Biogaia.

    More on Lutimax:http://lutimax.com/inflammation.html

    • Sarah
      February 7, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      Thank you Sarah-Blue :)

  7. February 7, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    Literature suggests that L-carnitine supplements may help some patients with autism http://goo.gl/0wZSz

  8. Ela
    February 8, 2012 at 4:24 am

    Besides the Vit C, E, Fish Oil and multi Vit B has worked wonders.

  9. February 20, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    I very much liked this information. i have one question regarding problems of people with autism & others too. Could people who have problems digesting some foods also have a problem getting the beifits of supplements? In a sort of answer to my own question I think that according to the study mentioned it seems that the supplements seemed to help at least some what.

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