Autism and vitamin D

Refugee groups who have relocated to cities in northern climates after fleeing war in Somalia have been having children diagnosed with autism for the first time in their culture’s experience. The condition was unfamiliar to the families at first but enough women shared their concerns with each other that it became recognized as an issue that many of the families were experiencing. Some women share their story in the following article — they hope their families’ difficulties might help shed light on the increase in autism rates. The women in the video relocated to the state of Minnesota in the U.S. but an increase in autism rates has also been seen in similar groups who relocated to other countries located in northern climates. Low vitamin D levels at birth has been associated with an increased risk for autism. Additional risk factors must be involved however because some of the siblings in the study also had low vitamin D at birth but did not have autism. []

Women with dark complexions and who tend to wear full coverage garments could be at increased risk for low vitamin D levels when living in a northern climate due to little sun exposure most of the year. Increased use of vitamin D rich foods such as sardines, or fortified dairy products, or supplements is important during pregnancy anyway as levels of vitamin D are normally elevated during pregnancy and within the placenta.

The vitamin D receptor and hormone D are important for immune function throughout the body but also play a role in helping the woman’s body accept the infant’s foreign DNA.

The dendritic cells are part of the immune system that helps increase tolerance or acceptance of something foreign to oneself. Tolerance is desired when the mother’s body has to accept the presence of the foreign DNA of the expected infant during pregnancy. tolerance is also important when some of our important body proteins are also chemically similar to types of protein that are commonly found in the food supply. In addition to other functions the dendritic cells can help prevent white blood cells from being as overactive and acting as if they are allergic to one’s own body or allergic to the developing infants’ brain cells.

Some cases of autism may be due to the development of autoimmune like fetal brain antigens which are attacked by maternal auto-antibodies, UC Davis MIND Institute researchers identify specific fetal antigens attacked by maternal antibodies,  “Nearly 23 percent of mothers of children with autism had certain combinations of autoantibodies against the target antigens, compared with less than 1 percent of mothers of children without the disorder.”

Antibody production within the mother against an illness or a vaccination, especially during the first trimester, may be affecting the developing infant’s production of autoimmune antibodies that may affect the brain. [7]

Work is advancing on developing ways to detect epigenetic changes in children which may have occurred during prenatal development and may be a contributing factor in autism. []

The dendritic cells and T regulatory cells seem to play a large role in both autoimmune disease and in cancer. Autoimmune disease involves overactive white blood cells which seem to have become allergic or intolerant to normal tissue while cancer seems to involve underactive white blood cells that fail to stop tumorous cells from growing uncontrollably. Plasma levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine are involved in control of the cells. The dendritic cells are themselves also able to make and store and release dopamine so there may be some ability by the cells to affect the plasma levels of dopamine and therefore also be able to affect their own activity level in some way /speculation/. And autoimmune disease is associated with reduced plasma levels of dopamine and cancer is associated with elevated plasma levels of dopamine. Calcium may be able to signal release of dopamine from the dendritic cells. [] And dopamine may also be able to “induce VDR-mediated signaling in the absence of the ligand suggesting a complex interaction between Vitamin D and neurotransmitters (Matkovits and Christakos, 1995).” [4, Eyles, 2005]  The vitamin D receptor is found in some areas of the brain and the enzyme that can activate vitamin D to hormone D is found throughout the brain.

So low vitamin D levels during pregnancy, plus other factors such as maternal auto-antibodies from an autoimmune condition  [8, 9, 12, 13] may be underlying factors in risk of a infant developing autism later in life. Preventing low vitamin D in pregnant women is already a standard recommendation for many health reasons but now it appears that it may also be helping reduce the risk for developing autism for some people.

The refugee women from Somalia likely had low vitamin D because of the change in sunshine but other women may be more at risk for low vitamin D due to genetic defect in the Vitamin D Binding Protein gene [7] or other reasons that are unidentified at this time.

Stopping use of vaccinations during the first trimester of pregnancy may also be found to be important for protecting against the child’s later risk for developing autism. Vaccinations for the mother during pregnancy might protect her from getting the sickness but they still boost her antigen production.

Ideally pregnant women may need to avoid both getting sick or getting vaccines during pregnancy to best help protect the developing baby’s brain from later autism risk – more research is needed about the use of vaccinations prenatally . The recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) regarding influenza vaccinations for pregnant women were changed in a series of stages beginning in 1995  through 2004. Prior to 1995 influenza vaccinations were recommended only for women with preexisting medical conditions, by 2004 the recommendation had changed to include all pregnant women regardless of trimester. [10]

(A chart on autism rates by birth year shows the increase starting prior to 1995 which suggests it doesn’t really have to do with vaccinations given during pregnancy: [Autism U.S. and Outlying Areas, 2008, 12]. The artificial sweetener aspartame is mentioned as having been added to the food supply around the time of the initial increase in rate of autism. “Dr. Woodrow Monte said: “The epidemic of Autism began 9 months after the introduction of aspartame into carbonated beverages. A recent questionnaire posts Lite Yogurt as one of the favored food during pregnancy of women who bore autistic children…..when will this madness stop?”” *But this is from a questionable looking reference: [14] If it is true then it would be very hard to avoid because Neotame, a slightly more concentrated version of aspartame, was approved for off label use in 2002 by the U.S. FDA. It may be in many processed foods without having to be listed in the ingredients. )

The dendritic cells are necessary to help protect the developing baby’s brain from  maternal antigens by inducing ‘tolerance’ of the expected infant, but they require appropriate levels of hormone D and enough of the Vitamin D Binding Protein to help deliver it. Vitamin D Binding Protein is like a personal taxi service for moving vitamin D around the body and into a cell’s interior where an enzyme can activate it to hormone D and it can then activate the antimicrobial functions or other functions of the Vitamin D Receptor (if no pathogens have blocked it with a chemical ligand that is similar enough to hormone D to fit in the receptor but chemically inactive, serving to block it’s antimicrobial functions as well as it’s baby tolerance functions, but that is also a different topic. [11]).

Clinical work has been done in the field of cancer treatment and autism treatment with the use of GcMAF, a protein similar to the Vitamin D Binding Protein that is important for immune function. — and human albumin, like egg white albumin, is also in that family of proteins, [7],  so maybe a confused and overactive immune system might confuse egg white albumin with a protein in the Vitamin D Binding Protein group and set up an autoimmune antibody to it that can cause calciphylaxis like skin sores — you know, they don’t know what causes that condition after all and I do know that egg white now seems to cause my skin to not grow in patches, and while I like eating eggs, I prefer having the ability to grow healthy skin.

You know something else? Traditional holiday stuffing is usually made with eggs even when it is especially made with gluten free bread crumbs  — hindsight is still 20/20.           You know what a holiday baked potato is made out of? A potato. Sometimes simple is easier for the both the cook and for the allergy prone guest, live and learn. A vaccination is inserting a variety of foreign chemicals into an allergy prone environment – dangerous for an adult, but potentially brain damaging to a developing fetus.

/Disclosure: This information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes./

  1. Adorini L, Penna G. Dendritic cell tolerogenicity: a key mechanism in immunomodulation by vitamin D receptor agonists. Hum Immunol. 2009 May;70(5):345-52. []
  2. Excerpt from the Abstract:  “Tolerogenic DCs induced by a short treatment with VDR agonists promote CD4+CD25+Foxp3+ Treg cells that are able to mediate transplantation tolerance and to arrest the development of autoimmune diseases. VDR agonists not only favor induction of CD4+CD25+ Treg cells, but can also enhance their recruitment at inflammatory sites.
  3. Rodrigo Pacheco, Francisco Contreras, Moncef Zouali, The dopaminergic system in autoimmune diseases, Front. Immunol., 21 March 2014, []
  4. Darryl W. Eyles, et. al., Distribution of the Vitamin D receptor and 1a-hydroxylase in human brain, Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy 29 (2005) 21–30, []  Excerpt: “There is now convincing evidence that Vitamin D is important in brain development (Brown et al., 2003; Burkert et al., 2003; Eyles et al., 2003; McGrath et al., 2003; Mackay-Sim et al., 2004).”
  5. Cheng-Lin Lang, et. al., Vitamin D and the Immune System from the Nephrologist’s Viewpoint, ISRN Endocrinology, Vol 2014, Article ID 105456, 11 pages, []
  6. Adrian F Gombart, The vitamin D–antimicrobial peptide pathway and its role in protection against infection,  Future Microbiol. 2009 November ; 4: 1151. []                                                    Excerpt (page 8):  “The production of secondary bile acids by microbes may modulate cathelicidin expression in the colon via the VDR. One could speculate that the selective force for placing the cathelicidin gene under the regulation of the VDR was so its expression could be regulated by both vitamin D and xenobiotic factors (Figure 4).” *                                                                                                                                                                                                “A recent study indicates that the VDR may act as a receptor for additional nutritional ligands, including curcumin and polyunsaturated fats such as α-linolenic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid and arachidonic acid [118]. The in vivo relevance of these findings remains to be elucidated, but it is intriguing to consider that numerous nutritional compounds may modulate the expression of VDR target genes such as antimicrobial peptides.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Excerpt (page 9):  “The therapeutic use of active vitamin D has been hampered by the toxic side effects of hypercalcemia.”  **                                                                                            *That the Vitamin D receptor can be regulated by “xenobiotic factors” suggests that some healthy strains of intestinal bacteria may be protecting us from unhealthy strains of bacteria by activating the production of our own internal antibiotic/antimicrobial proteins (the cathelicidin mentioned in the excerpt) by activating our vitamin D receptors. So mom was indeed right about the benefits of eating fiber rich vegetables — feed the healthy strains of bacteria and let them protect us against the unhealthy strains.                                                                   **Hypercalcemia is why some types of patients might need a substitute for vitamin D or D3 which might not also affect calcium balance in the same ways as the active hormone D. The medication Benicar/olmesartan or the phytochemical curcumin may be able to activate the immune functions of the vitamin D receptor without also causing increased release of calcium from the bone matrix, but more research is needed. The medical use of vitamin D receptor agonists is still in early stages of study. (Curcumin is a medically active phytochemical derived from the spice, turmeric, which is commonly used in curry type dishes).
  7. Suneil Malik, et. al., Common variants of the vitamin D binding protein gene and adverse health outcomes, Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2013 Jan-Feb;50(1):1-22 []
  8. Megan Brooks, Autoimmunity a Player in AutismSept. 06, 2013, []
  9. Alexander Keil, et. al., Parental Autoimmune Diseases Associated With Autism Spectrum Disorders in OffspringEpidemiology. 2010 Nov; 21(6): 805–808.
  10. David M. Ayoub M. D. and F. Edward Yazbak M. D. , Influenza Vaccination During Pregnancy: A Critical Assessment of the Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Vol 11, Number 2, 2006, []
  11. Grant R. Campbell1 and Stephen A. Spector, Toll-Like Receptor 8 Ligands Activate a Vitamin D Mediated Autophagic Response that Inhibits Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type 1, PLoS Pathog. 2012 Nov; 8(11): e1003017.[]
  12. Neonatal Lupus []
  13. Maternal thyroid autoantibody and offspring autism risk, Jan. 15, 2015,
  14. []
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