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Autism Coach

Methlylation and Autism


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The Pfeiffer Clinic in Chicago has raised awareness within the autism community over the past several years, through its popularization of the concepts of under-methylation and over-methylation.   Pfeiffer focuses primarily on identifying chemical imbalances and balancing brain chemistry. Approximately 45%-85% of individuals or more within the autism spectrum are believed to be under-methylators (do no have enough methyl groups) and 10-15% are believed to be over-methylators (have too many methyl groups).   

Methyl groups consist of one carbon atom combined with three associated atoms of hydrogen, often written as CH3.  Methylation is a metabolic process within the body that uses methyl groups to perform functions that include:  regulating levels of histamine (which is a key factor in allergic responses), protecting DNA,  promoting detoxification, producing neurotransmitters, and carrying out other brain functions. 

Pfeiffer believes that the underlying cause of autism is deficient levels of the Metallothionein (MT) protein.  They believe that  MT regulates ratios of copper and zinc.  They see the primary functions of MT as being: development of brain neurons, cell transcription, regulation of zinc and copper, maturation of the intestinal tract, anti-oxidant, immune function, delivering zinc to cells. MT is the body’s primary protection against toxic metals – it has a strong affinity for mercury, lead, and cadmium.   When mercury binds to MT, it is easily excreted – when MT levels are low, mercury is not easily excreted.  

In lab testing, Pfeiffer has also found the copper/zinc ratio tends to be imbalanced for individuals within the autism spectrum – frequently with excessive levels of copper present in the body for both under and over-methylators.  It is believed that Carnosine products, such as Liquid Carnosine Plus,  help to restore zinc/copper ratios.

Current research in autism is pointing to genetic predisposition and combined with exposure to toxins as leading to today’s epidemic of autism.  Pfeiffer believes that environmental toxins frequently disable and/or deplete Metallothionein, deplete zinc and result in overload of copper for individuals within the autism spectrum.  

As an aside on the under/over-methylation treatment approach - it is my thought that there is a tremendous amount of variability in metabolic issues for each individual within the autism spectrum.   Anecdotally, I am hearing from some parents of children who are hyperactive, that they benefit from methylated B vitamins while others do not.  Some kids do well with DMG but not TMG, or vise versa.  Some do well with sulfur-bearing amino acids such as taurine, but others do not.  Also, what is beneficial for an individual may change over time.  Metabolic processes are so complex, that there is not a complete understanding of them, nor is there a consensus about an optimal approach amongst physicians specializing in autism.  Not all autism specialists concur with the under/over-methylation theory.  Nonetheless, it is good to be aware of the current thinking.  You can decide for yourself what makes sense and appears to work for you and/or your child.

Under-Methylation

According to Pfeiffer, under-methylators  tend to produce lower levels of the following neurotransmitters: seratonin, melatonin, dopamine, norpinephrine. 

Conditions that can be associated with undermethylation (but not always) include:  low-energy, internal anxiety, depression, and anorexia.  

Supplements that tend to benefit undermethylators:  methyl donors (such as DMG (dimethylglycine), TMG (trimethylglycine), methyl-B12 (methylcobalamin), methyl-B6 (P5), and methylated folic acid (folinic acid or methyltetrafolate), methionine. 

Under-methylators tend to develop excessive levels of folates so levels of folic acid should be monitored carefully.   It is best to usea  methylated version of folic acid (5-methyltetrahydrofolate) than non-methylated folic acid.  

Under-methylators tend to become more mentally alert when given supplements containing methyl donors.  

Over-Methylation  

According to Pfeiffer, over-methylators are believed to have elevated levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine levels.

Supplements that tend to benefit over-methylators:  non-methylated B vitamins (folic acid, B-12, niacin (or niacinamide), B-6), and DMAE.

Conditions that can be associated with over-methylation (but not always):  hyperactivity, outwardly expressed anxiety.  

Over-methylators tend to become hyper and “stimmy” given methyl donors.  Generally they should avoid methionine SAMe, TMG, DMG, and methylated B vitamins.  

For Under-and Over- Methylators

The following supplements are believed to promote the production of Metallothionein and be of benefit to under-methylators and over-methylators:

  • Thionein
  • Glutathione (preferably an absorbable liposome form, if soy can be tolerated)
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Vitamins A, C, D, E (natural forms best – some children do not metabolize artificial forms well).
  • Genistein
  • Both populations also tend to benefit from:
  • Omega 3 oils
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium  

Both populations should avoid:

  • Copper containing supplements
  • Water from copper pipes (bottled water is best)
  • Swimming pools treated with copper sulfate (used for algae cleaning)

For information about the Pfeiffer clinic’s theories, and for information about clinical tests to determine methylation dysfunction, please visit their web site.