Nutrient Therapy for Autism

In this blog post, Kelly Dorfman, MS, LND, discusses nutrient therapy such as metallothione.

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 website.

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 success stories of children doing one therapy are so compelling. Then when a child’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 a Bandwagon

The metallothionein (MT) theory of autism is a hypothesis proposed by Dr. William Walsh that says 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.

Nutrient Therapy for Autism

Because metallothionein theory assumes that zinc status equals metallothionein status, it places very heavy emphasis on zinc supplementation. 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 could cause gut and neurological dysfunction by disrupting MT and G-alpha proteins.

Metallothionein 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.

About Kelly Dorfman MS LND

Kelly Dorfman is one of the world’s foremost experts on using nutrition therapeutically to improve brain function, energy and mood. Kelly’s special talent for integrating information from many sources and finding practical solutions has made her a popular speaker and workshop leader. She lectures extensively and is a member of Platform (formerly the National Speakers Association) and has been featured on numerous television programs including CNN’s American Morning.

Kelly’s award winning book, Cure Your Child With Food: The Hidden Connection Between Nutrition and Childhood Ailments (formerly known as What’s Eating Your Child) was given rave reviews by Publishers Weekly and the Washington Post.

As a go-to expert on nutrition issues, Kelly is frequently interviewed and quoted in the media. She has been featured in articles in The Wall Street Journal, Parade, Bethesda magazine, Living Without magazine, and the Huffington Post.

Kelly holds a master’s degree in nutrition/biology and is a licensed nutrition dietitian. She is a co-founder of Developmental Delay Resources, which has merged with Epidemic Answers. You can find out more about Kelly and her practice at

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