by Allan Magaziner, DO
I just returned from the annual meeting of the American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM), on whose Board I serve. As always, I left excited about the many advances being made in the field of integrative medicine.
At the conference, there was much discussion about the impact of the environment on a person’s health and wellbeing. I felt compelled to touch on this topic here immediately as April is Autism Awareness Month and, in my professional opinion, there is no way to deny the link between environmental factors and the appearance – and, often, the severity – of autism and related disorders.
Consider this alarming finding from a recent study of 10 newborn children: Upon birth, the average person has already been exposed to more than 200 chemicals. In fact, when the cord blood of these infants was analyzed, 287 different chemicals were identified…at birth!
This is incredibly dangerous since, at birth, the blood-brain barrier is not yet developed so these chemicals are not blocked in any way and therefore can adversely impact brain function.
So what does this have to do with autism?
There’s been an increase in recognition of autism over the last 10 years – presently one out of every 90 children have some form of the disorder, which is a condition that causes difficulties with perception, thought, language, behavior and sociability.
To really understand autism, we need to look at what has changed during this period of rapid diagnosis of the disorder. We know that genetics hasn’t changed. What has changed are environmental factors, including the increasing number of chemicals we are exposed to from pesticides, flame retardants, plasticizers, solvents, personal care products, medicines, artificial sweeteners and flavors. These varied factors have a clear impact on the expression of our genes.
Each of us is biochemically different, which is why two brothers may have the same genes, but one may develop a disorder while the other never does – even if exposed to the same environmental factors in utero or beyond. Simply put, some people are predisposed to react to a chemical substance differently than others.
It has been found that many autistic children have a defect in their ability to excrete certain chemicals; therefore, they were more genetically susceptible to the chemicals’ effects. Many also have mitochondrial dysfunction and an inability to metabolize high levels of metals which results in neuro-inflammation, oxidative stress, impaired mitochondrial function and neurotransmitter imbalances. They also often have liver toxicity and gastrointestinal problems.
What does this mean for prevention of autism?
While the cause of autism is still not clear, nobody can say definitively at this point that doing one thing or another will completely prevent the disorder. However, looking at the data and reviewing the common denominators in these children, what is clear is that there is an undeniable link between the chemicals found in our environment and autism. The best we can do – to help reduce the numbers and/ or the severity of cases – is to eliminate these chemicals from our lives as much as we can by eating a healthy diet of natural, unprocessed foods rich in vitamins and nutrients, rounding out our diets with nutritional supplements as advised by a healthcare professional and reducing our exposure to phthalates (like those in nail polish), organophosphates (often found in pesticides), PCBs, (found in plastic products including most baby bottles), solvents (found in furniture and new carpets) and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. These measures should, if possible, begin with the mom in the pre- or peri-conception time, at the latest, and continue with the birth of the child.
And what if my child has autism?
At the Magaziner Center for Wellness, our goal is to help maximize a child’s potential by setting up an individualized program aimed at diagnosing and treating often hidden problems that may be impeding his or her development. We support the use of behavioral counseling and speech, physical and occupational therapies that are often recommended as part of the overall treatment regimen.
We analyze each patient individually – because, as I’ve said before, each person is biochemically different and, even among those on the autism spectrum, not every treatment works for every person. We administer safe, nontoxic dietary supplements, antifungal agents, and dietary modifications. We also place great emphasis on the detoxification and evaluation and treatment of toxic metals, including mercury, lead, cadmium and aluminum. Treatment may also include improving digestion and assimilation and asking a child to avoid certain foods which could be harmful to his or her wellbeing. We often recommend hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which greatly increases oxygen uptake to the brain, nervous system, skeletal muscle, and all body tissues and has been been found useful in the treatment of the symptoms of autism.
While autism is still quite a mystery, great strides have been made in increasing the awareness of the disorder and uncovering some clues to its potential causes. With more research, increased commitment and willingness for doctors and patients alike to ask tough questions and demand a change in our environment, I am confident the next 10 years will yield much better news on this front than the previous decade has.