A phytochemical in some vegetables offers a promising treatment for autism.
One food may be able to combat all four purported causal factors of autism: synaptic dysfunction, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and neuroinflammation.
Research into this food-based treatment began with efforts to figure out what it is about a fever that has such a dramatic impact on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Already, up to 1.5 percent of American children have autism, and it appears to be on the rise. What about fever’s dramatic effect? “Dramatic relief of autistic behavior by infectious fever continues to tantalize parents and practitioners,” reads an article in the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism’s journal, adding that researchers are hesitant to test this mechanism for fear of the damaging impacts fever can have.
“Yet what could be more revealing than a common event that virtually ‘normalizes’ autistic behavior for a time?” they ask.
Once it became understood that one cause of autism may reside in the synapses—the “soul of the brain,” the nerve-to-nerve junctions where information is transmitted—attention turned to heat shock proteins, which are released by the brain when you have a fever.
They can improve synaptic transmission and, thus, may be capable of improving long-range brain connectivity, which is depressed in autism. A compound, sulforaphane, upregulates those heat shock proteins, so you could potentially get the benefits without the fever. Which drug company makes it? What do I ask for at the pharmacy? You don’t. As I discuss in my video “Fighting Autism Brain Inflammation with Food,” you just need to check out the produce section at your local market.
Sulforaphane is not made in a chemical plant—it’s made by a plant. Sulforaphane is made by cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, kale, cabbage, collards, and cauliflower. Perhaps if we give broccoli to those with autism, it will make things better by boosting the heat shock proteins.
But synaptic dysfunction isn’t the only contributing cause of autism. There’s also oxidative stress, which the brain is particularly vulnerable to. This is because many free radicals are forged in the brain, and the brain has few antioxidant defense capacities. This view is supported by a long history of studies showing that autism is associated with oxidative stress and diminished antioxidant capacity.
Nrf2 levels are cut nearly in half, which is what triggers our body’s antioxidant response. Nrf2? What is that? It’s “considered to be a master regulator” of our body’s response to environmental stressors, according to a 2016 article published in Seminars in Oncology. If only there were a way to boost Nrf2 with foods. Well, there is.
Sulforaphane just so happens to be perhaps “the most potent naturally occurring inducer” of Nrf2 on the planet, note the authors. Under any kind of stress—oxidative stress, inflammatory stress—Nrf2 triggers our antioxidant response elements, activating all sorts of cell-protective genes that balance out and detoxify the free radicals and facilitate protein and DNA repair. So, maybe if we give some broccoli to those with autism, it will also make things better by triggering Nrf2, which activates those antioxidant response elements.
There’s also the mitochondrial dysfunction. Children with autism are more likely to suffer from dysfunctional mitochondria, the little powerplants within our cells where metabolism takes place. If only there were some food that could improve mitochondrial function. And, there is: “A diet rich in cruciferous vegetables effectively retunes our metabolism by … restoring metabolic homeostasis,” or metabolic balance, notes a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013. These vegetables are power plants for our cellular power plants.
Not only can sulforaphane boost the gene expression of heat shock proteins as much as sixfold within six hours, but it can also double the mass of mitochondria in human cells growing in a petri dish. So, maybe if we give some broccoli to those with autism, it will also make things better by relieving some of that mitochondrial dysfunction that is creating even more free radicals.
Can we just try giving these kids some broccoli already?
Before we do, there’s one final factor. Neuroinflammation—brain inflammation—is another causal factor in autism. If, at autopsy, you look at brain tissue of those with autism, you can see inflammation throughout the white matter, and if you do a spinal tap, you’ll find up to 200 times the levels of inflammatory mediators, such as interferon, bathing their brains. What’s causing all that inflammation?
Well, the master regulator of the inflammatory cascade is a protein called NF-kappa-beta, which induces inflammation. If overexpressed, as in autism, it can lead to chronic or excessive inflammation. If only there were a food …
Really? Broccoli does that, too? Yes! In fact, the major anti-inflammatory mechanism for sulforaphane is inhibiting NF-kappa-beta.
That completes the picture. Give broccoli to someone with autism, and heat shock proteins are released to boost synaptic transmission, Nrf2 is activated to wipe out the free radicals, mitochondrial function is restored, and we suppress the inflammation triggered by NF-kappa-beta. One food counters all four purported causal factors of autism.
That’s one of the differences between foods and drugs. Drugs tend to have single effects. But, autism spectrum disorder is multifactorial, so it’s no wonder there are no drugs that work. Unlike drugs, however, the complex chemistry of plants includes phytochemicals that spur multiple biochemical reactions in the body.
And when researchers tested this theory out, giving people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) a treatment of sulforaphane, the results were important.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and other institutions say they “observed consistent and large improvements in behavior in the majority of sulforaphane-treated ASD [participants].”
They note, however, that the sample size and diversity of participants was limited, and broader studies are required.
The findings were published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States) in 2014.
“Most clinical studies and medications aim to restrain ASD’s troublesome symptoms. In contrast, this study was, to our knowledge, one of the few designed to target core clinical features as well as the fundamental biochemical abnormalities of ASD (oxidative stress and antioxidant deficiency, increased susceptibility to electrophile toxicity, and inflammation) by the administration of sulforaphane,” they state.
“Unlike the rapid onset of changes in behavior during fever in ASD, responses to sulforaphane in this study appeared over several weeks. This finding suggests that sulforaphane may cause increases in gene transcription in multiple underperforming cell-signaling pathways.”
The implications of the study and previous findings that fever could dramatically alleviate ASD behaviors have profound significance.
Michael Greger, M.D., FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. He has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. This article was originally published on NutritionFacts.org.