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Debating the Cause of Autism: Genes vs. Nutrition

Friday, February 22, 2008 by: Dr. Phil Domenico
Tags: autism, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) Autism is on the rise, but is it due to inheritance or to lifestyle? This seems to be the burning question of the day, as many new insights into the cause of autism are unfolding.

Autism encompasses a range of disorders, from mild to profound mental retardation, and social ineptitude often including repetitive and aggressive behavior. Signs and symptoms of autism are noticed in the first one to three years of a child's life. As many as 1 in 150 children, or up to 1.5 million people, in the US are affected. Currently there is no cure.

Recently there has been much ado about the genetic bases of autism. Several teams of scientists reported in early 2008 that polymorphisms (i.e., flaws) in a single gene raise the risk of autism. The gene produces a brain protein called CNTNAP2 which allows brain cells to communicate. One of the hallmarks of autism is a delay in speech, and the CNTNAP2 gene appears important for language development. Other genes on remote chromosomes have also recently been linked to autism. Autism may involve defects in many parts of the brain.

Granted, the genetic link to autism holds some value in our greater understanding of this unfortunate disease. However, it does not explain why autism has increased dramatically since the 1980s. Nor do improvements in diagnosis. Rather, the marked increase in autism coincides with increased obesity, ADHD, heart disease, cancer, depression and a host of other diseases associated with modern lifestyles in industrial societies. Our water, air, food and household items are polluted with hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals from pesticides, preservatives, synthetic fertilizers, and the like. We are swimming in toxins, and mercury is the cruelest among them.

The emphasis on genes and inheritance has also coincided with a pharmaceutical industry-backed study dissociating mercury-containing vaccine use with autism. The argument goes that, since California banned mercury preservatives in vaccines, autism has only increased. Also, the argument goes, autism is generally diagnosed beyond the age of 2, after most vaccinations have occurred. Regardless, who in their right mind would argue for the use of mercury in products for infants? Mercury is profoundly toxic, far more so than lead, especially for developing minds. Moreover, infants and fetuses are still being exposed to mercury from flu shots and from environmental sources. The damage is done early, but aftereffects of exposure on language and social behavior show up later. There is no doubt that mercury is contributing to disease, so why increase the exposure by adding it to vaccines?

Ironically, our health experts remind us to eat “healthy” fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, they have become bereft of many nutrients and laden with toxic chemicals. To make matters worse, popular drugstore multivitamins (manufactured by the big drug companies) contain cheap ingredients that are not well absorbed, or are not readily useful. Meanwhile, our consumption-oriented lifestyles feed the corporate coffers while contributing to pollution and global warming. It seems that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The fact that our children are increasingly handicapped with obesity, diabetes and mental disorders is a sure sign of a decaying culture.

So, was this flurry of articles on autism mere coincidence or corporate opportunism? It is hard to say in current medical practice, where profit is king and health an afterthought. Autism is very likely a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental insults, since many children with these faulty genes do not come down with the disease. Genetic flaws make disease more likely, but do not necessarily “cause” the disease. Causation is almost always multifactorial. The question is whether we should focus on expensive genetic research or on inexpensive preventive measures to keep genes from expressing themselves. In other words, the focus (and funding) should not be so much on identifying reasons why, but instead on how to improve nutrition and avoid toxins and pollutants. This includes increased funding for organic agriculture, adopting a high-quality vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant supplement regimen as part of universal health care, and excluding drugs and vaccines that are damaging, especially to children. In a word, it’s common sense.

If you really want to donate for a good cause, look up the Pfeiffer Treatment Center, which is dedicated to the treatment of children, teens, and adults with symptoms of behavioral and learning disorders (http://hriptc.org/main_research.html). The Center takes a unique, integrative approach to identify and treat the root metabolic causes of these disorders with a multi-disciplinary clinical team involving physicians, nurses, dietitians, pharmacists and other clinical specialists. According to these scientists, the cause of autism involves the absence of mercury detoxifying proteins (i.e., metallothioneins) found in the intestinal lining, in the brain and elsewhere. These proteins rely on zinc for their production and activity, so a lack of zinc in early life can promote susceptibility to mercury poisoning. This Center also specializes in the treatment of autism with high-quality vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential oils that have been shown to improve sociability and reduce aggression in children with autism and other mental/emotional challenges.

In the meantime, do yourself a favor: Throw out that cheap drugstore brand and go buy a high-quality multivitamin. And, if you have the means, include a chelated multi-mineral supplement, mercury-free fish oil, and an antioxidant combo. Give them to the entire family, and especially the children.

About the author

Dr. Phil Domenico is a nutritional scientist and educator with a research background in biochemistry and microbiology. Formerly an infectious disease scientist, he now works as a consultant for supplement companies and the food industry.

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