Nutrient Therapies: Seeing the Big Picture

by Kelly Dorfman, M.S., Co-founder, DDR

Every day we hear a new theory about the cause of autism. First it was "refrigerator mothers," then sulphotransferase deficiency or DPP4 enzyme malfunction, then G-alpha protein malfunction. More recently we targeted heavy metal toxicity and now a metallothionein protein (MT) defect. Just listing the biochemical shortfalls associated with developmental delays would fill this newsletter.

Collectively, these theories are critically important and are leading to a striking number of dramatic recoveries. Because the number of proposed metabolic defects is skyrocketing however, they are increasingly being promoted in isolation as single entities. Autism, the headlines scream, is a metalo-enzyme defect! Developmental delays come from heavy metal poisoning!

Simple Solutions: Tempting but Risky

It is natural for parents and professionals to seek simple solutions. Sorting through long metabolic mazes seems pointless when the recovery stories of children doing one therapy are so compelling. Then when a youngster’s modest improvement fails to live up to the hype surrounding the new wonder therapy, parents either dump it or add it to a string of other disconnected treatments. Or, even worse, the child undergoes increasingly aggressive treatment because, according to the new theory, he should be getting better. When that doesn’t work, discouraged parents walk away from protocols that could help, or adopt ungainly, unbalanced programs with 20 or 30 different supplements.

Jumping on the latest bandwagon

The metallothionein (MT) theory of autism is this year’s hottest hypothesis. Dr. William Walsh has proposed that a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental insult weakens the MT protein system. MT proteins are the body’s primary protection against toxic metals. They may be involved in developing neurons, improving memory and supporting immune function. According to the theory, MT activity is directly related to the body’s ratio of zinc to copper. Too little zinc or too much copper interfere with MT function, leading to symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), emotional instability and socialization deficits.

Balancing zinc with other trace minerals

Because MT theory assumes that zinc status equals MT status, it places very heavy emphasis on zinc supplementation. No one has directly measured MT in children yet. To improve zinc levels, parents routinely give five year olds 40 mg of supplement. After hearing a talk on MT, one parent reported confidently that up to 150 mg could be used safely. Not true. Zinc, like all trace minerals, can be toxic. In addition, both benefit and harm ensue from its interactions with other minerals. Sufficient intake of zinc can reduce lead, copper, manganese and possibly mercury levels. Copper and manganese reduction is sometimes desirable, but unlike lead and mercury, they are also essential nutrients.

Too much zinc can lead to anemia because copper is needed to make hemoglobin. Copper is also a critical part of superoxide dismutase, a detoxifying enzyme.

The most common symptoms of excessive zinc are gastrointestinal irritation and diarrhea. High levels of zinc may also affect blood calcium and urine magnesium levels. Using over 20 mg of zinc in a small child should be done with extreme caution and only with medical supervision. If zinc levels fail to respond to several months of therapy, consider other factors that affect zinc utilization, such as the form of zinc, or vitamin B-6, rather than adding more and more.

Nutrient therapy - a Complex Web

In web thinking, it is possible, but not necessary to isolate a single cause. Factors like heavy metals, food sensitivities, poor nutrient intake and digestive imbalance are all interconnected. In one case, the diagnosis may be gut lining damage from eating hard-to-digest proteins before the body was ready for them. This could lead to poor nutrient absorption and/or food sensitivity causing the child to absorb heavy metals more readily. In another scenario, heavy metal or viral exposure through early immunizations could cause gut and neurological dysfunction by disrupting MT and G-alpha proteins.

MT theory, like many of its predecessors, has merit, but is in danger of following a long string of therapies that are "cures" one year and crushing disappointments the next. Remember secretin? Let’s consider individual theories as part of a large and intricate whole. When parents and professionals draw insights from all of the valuable new research, they will understand and treat developmental delays like the complex web that they are.

Resist quick explanations. Explore your child’s situation the way you would explore an intricate web. Determining how symptoms and history relate to many of these interconnected new theories can lead to a safer and more comprehensive treatment plan.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 7, Number 1 - Fall, 2001]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.


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Page last modified: February 23, 2009
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