Oxidative stress and Autism

October 18, 2018 by drlindenberg

Oxidative Stress

Oxidation is a perfectly normal and healthy function in the human body, but though oxidative stress is equally common and unavoidable, it has the potential to cause damage to the system and should be managed and, if possible, prevented. This becomes even more crucial for children affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as understanding both the degree of discomfort caused and the danger of degenerative damage to the system, can help parents substantially to prevent the dysfunction.

How does it occur:

The process is a complex one, but as a relatively simple explanation, it can be expressed as follows: oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are molecules that contain oxygen and have an uneven number of electrons. This allows them to react easily with other molecules, which is what results in oxidation. They are constantly formed during metabolism, serve important functions, and are essential for human survival. As the body’s immune cells utilize free radicals to destroy bacteria and resultant infections, they are largely beneficial and indispensable. But they can be harmful and would destroy the body without antioxidants.

Oxidative Stress and Autism

Numerous studies have supported indications that children with ASD suffer from an imbalance between the required amount of free radicals and the ideal amount of antioxidants to control their effect. When the free radicals outnumber the antioxidants, the imbalance caused can be severely damaging and lead to cell death. Serious diseases that can result include diabetes, hardening of the blood vessels, inflammatory conditions, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. As children with ASD are unable to communicate about symptoms that cause them extreme distress, it is vital to redress this imbalance. Equally, it is imperative to avoid their being exposed to free radicals in the environment. Harmful sources of these are linked to pollution: cigarette smoke, certain pesticides and cleaners, ozone, and radiation.


While avoidance of such free radicals can help to protect autistic individuals, prevention of oxidative stress can be achieved by a change in diet and lifestyle. When the body produces antioxidants by donating an electron to a free radical, this process stabilizes the free radical and causes it to be less reactive. The most important anti-oxidant defense is the body’s own anti-oxidant enzymes. To support these processes are supported by a diet high in fruit and vegetables and a healthy amount of exercise.


Dietary antioxidants are mainly provided by a diet rich in a variety of fruit and vegetables: “eating a rainbow”. Particular fruits are berries, cherries, citrus fruit, prunes, etc. and vegetables of note are leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes and olives. Further dietary sources of anti-oxidants are: fish and nuts, vitamin C, turmeric, green tea, onion, garlic and cinnamon.

  • Additionally, administering the following supplements will improve oxidative stress:
  • B vitamins and folate – B vitamins are methyl donors, especially folate, B6, B12 and riboflavin
  • Sulfurous foods – these aid in correcting the level of glutathione, which provide compounds that adhere to toxins and heavy metals and remove them from the body
  • Protein powder – the synthesis of proteins is hampered by insufficient methionine
  • Selenium – this play a critical role in metabolism and thyroid function and helps to protect the body from damage caused by oxidative stress
  • Magnesium and zinc – zinc aids the immune system and magnesium supports healthy metabolism
  • Probiotics – these improve intestinal flora balance and promote good digestion

A urine test can test for oxidative stress; a cheek swab can reveal the genetic SNPs (variations in DNA building blocks) to assess anti-oxidant enzymes. The priority for ASD patients is to aim to increase their levels of antioxidants and to decrease their formation of free radicals to minimize the destructive effects of oxidative stress.


Dr Louise Lindenberg runs an integrative medical practice in Durbanville, Cape Town. She incorporates dietary intervention, supplementation, nutrition, phytotherapy/herbal medicine, and allopathic medicine in a holistic health care environment. Her passion is working with children on the Autistic Spectrum, including Autism, PDD, ADD, ADHD and behavioural problems.

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