Fighting Autism Brain Inflammation with Food

One food may be able to combat all four purported causal factors of autism: synaptic dysfunction, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and neuroinflammation.

In a keynote address at an autism conference, Harvard neurologist Martha Herbert said, “I think we need to conduct research as if we know this is an emergency.” Already, up to 1.5 percent of American children have autism, and it appears to be on the rise. What about fever’s dramatic effect? “Dramatic relief of autistic behavior by infectious fever continues to tantalize parents and practitioners” and, indeed, from a research standpoint, “what could be more revealing than a common event that virtually ‘normalizes’ autistic behavior for a time?” But, “[t]here’s so much going on during fever.…Where to begin?

Once it became understood that one cause of autism may reside in the synapses—the “soul of the brain,” the nerve-to-nerve junctions where information is transmitted—attention turned to heat shock proteins, which are released by the brain when you have a fever. They can improve synaptic transmission and, thus, may be capable of improving long-range brain connectivity, which is depressed in autism. A compound, sulforaphane, upregulates those heat shock proteins, so you could potentially get the benefits without the fever. Which drug company makes it? What do I ask for at the pharmacy? You don’t. As I discuss in my video Fighting Autism Brain Inflammation with Food, you just need to check out the produce section at your local market.

Sulforaphane is not made in a chemical plant—it’s made by a plant. Sulforaphane is made by broccoli, kale, cabbage, collards, and cauliflower—in other words, cruciferous vegetables. Perhaps if we give broccoli to those with autism, it will make things better by boosting the heat shock proteins.

But, as you can see at 1:57 in my video, synaptic dysfunction is not the only contributing cause of autism. There’s also oxidative stress. “The brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress” because lots of free radicals are forged in the brain, which has few “antioxidant defense capacities.” And indeed, there is “a long history of studies showing that ASD [autism] is associated with oxidative stress and diminished antioxidant capacity.” Nrf2 levels are cut nearly in half, which is what triggers our body’s antioxidant response. Nrf2? What is that? It’s “considered to be a master regulator” of our body’s response to environmental stressors. If only there were a way to boost Nrf2 with foods. Well, there is.

Sulforaphane just so happens to be perhaps “the most potent naturally occurring inducer” of Nrf2 on the planet. Under any kind of stress—oxidative stress, inflammatory stress—Nrf2 triggers our antioxidant response elements, activating all sorts of cell-protective genes that balance out and detoxify the free radicals and facilitate protein and DNA repair. So, maybe if we give some broccoli to those with autism, it will also make things better by triggering Nrf2, which activates those antioxidant response elements.

There’s also the mitochondrial dysfunction. Children with autism are more likely to suffer from dysfunctional mitochondria, the little powerplants within our cells where metabolism takes place. If only there were some food that could improve mitochondrial function. And, there is: “A diet rich in cruciferous vegetables effectively retunes our metabolism by…restoring metabolic homeostasis,” or metabolic balance. Power plants for our cellular powerplants.

As you can see at 3:58 in my video, not only can sulforaphane boost the gene expression of heat shock proteins as much as sixfold within six hours, but it can also double the mass of mitochondria in human cells growing in a petri dish. So, maybe if we give some broccoli to those with autism, it will also make things better by relieving some of that mitochondrial dysfunction that is creating even more free radicals.

Can we just try giving these kids some broccoli already?

Before we do, there’s one final factor. Neuroinflammation—brain inflammation—is another causal factor in autism. If, at autopsy, you look at brain tissue of those with autism, you can see inflammation throughout the white matter, and if you do a spinal tap, you’ll find up to 200 times the levels of inflammatory mediators, such as interferon, bathing their brains. What’s causing all that inflammation?

Well, the master regulator of the inflammatory cascade is a protein called NF-kappa-beta, which induces inflammation. If overexpressed, as in autism, it can lead to chronic or excessive inflammation. If only there were a food…

Really? Broccoli does that, too? Yes! In fact, the major anti-inflammatory mechanism for sulforaphane is inhibiting NF-kappa-beta.

That completes the picture. Give broccoli to someone with autism, and heat shock proteins are released to boost synaptic transmission, Nrf2 is activated to wipe out the free radicals, mitochondrial function is restored, and we suppress the inflammation triggered by NF-kappa-beta. One food counters all four purported causal factors of autism. That’s one of the differences between foods and drugs. Drugs tend to have single effects. But, autism spectrum disorder is multifactorial, so it’s no wonder there are no drugs that work. But “strategies using multi-functional phytochemicals” such as sulforaphane, or even better, the whole plants themselves “are highly attractive”…in theory. But you don’t know until you put it to the test, which I cover in my video Best Foods for Autism. You can also check: Flashback Friday: The Best Foods for Fighting Autism and Brain Inflammation.

Dramatic relief of autistic behavior during a fever? If you missed it, check out my last video, Fever Benefits for Autism in a Food.

For more on autism, see:

What else can broccoli’s magic do?

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Fever Benefits for Autism in a Food

Dramatic improvements in children with autism when they have a fever suggest that the disorder may be reversible if one can replicate the phenomenon in other ways.

Autism currently affects about 1 in 68 kids in the United States, yet we don’t even have drugs to treat the core symptoms, never mind the underlying disorder itself. We can treat some symptoms, just not the “core symptoms” of the disorder. If you’re aggressive, we can give you antipsychotic drugs, and you can get stimulants like Ritalin for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or we can knock you out to help you sleep. But, although “social and communication impairments are the main signs and symptoms of ASD,” autism, we have little to offer, and the disorder appears to be on the rise. What can we do about it?

Decades ago, a clue was published that offered a ray of hope: When children with autism get a fever, “they invariably display dramatically more normal behavioural patterns, including a greater desire or ability to communicate.” They can become less withdrawn, more alert, more talkative, and more communicative. All hospital staff members working with children with autism “during an epidemic of viral upper respiratory infection” noted the marked behavioral improvements, but as soon as the fever stopped, the children went back to their baseline. If we could figure out what’s going on, could we develop some sort of treatment? First, though, let’s take a step back and realize what this could mean.

What makes this idea so groundbreaking—so earth-shattering—is that it challenges the whole presumption that autism is some kind of static, irreversible brain disorder, where the brain is inexorably damaged in some way with no hope of recovery. But the fever glimpses suggest it may be more of a dynamic brain disorder, where the normal healthy circuits are in there somewhere but are actively being suppressed, and the fever somehow lifts that suppression and relieves the active disorder process. In this way, it suggests that if we could figure out what’s going on, we could theoretically relieve it for not just days, but for forever.

This must be what’s on every autism researcher’s mind, right? Unbelievably, “there is practically no mention of the high fever/improved behavior phenomenon in the entire autism literature,” even though nearly everyone who is knowledgeable about the disorder—parents and professionals alike who deal with autism day to day—evidently knows about it. In fact, the first (and only) Nobel Prize for Medicine ever given to a psychiatrist for brain ailments went to the “father of fever therapy,” Julius Wagner-Jauregg, who injected malaria into people. Some got better—if they didn’t die first from the malaria, that is. What is it about fever that can improve brain function? And, can we figure that out without killing people?

First, let’s confirm the phenomenon is real. “The rapid behavioral changes reported during fever” in autism suggest that those neural networks in autism may still be intact, just dysfunctional, “and understanding the reasons for improvement during fever might provide insight” into what’s going on. The “fever effect” in autism had been based on case reports and anecdotes until researchers “undertook a formal study” of the reported phenomenon, “given the…potential implications for treatment opportunities.” And, indeed: children with autism got better when they got a fever, officially documenting the phenomenon as real.

Now that we have confirmation, let’s figure it out. Full steam ahead! But, who cares how it works? Well, you can’t give people malaria like Dr. Wagner-Jauregg did, but why not just take them to a sauna or hot tub? Because it doesn’t actually increase your body temp. When you sit in a sauna or hot tub, your skin gets hotter, but your brain pretty much stays the same temperature. Why? The brain has special cooling mechanisms so it stays about the same temperature inside no matter what temperature it is outside, which is a good thing. This is the reason we can bite into a snow cone without literally getting brain freeze. When you get a fever, though, your internal thermostat gets turned up to fight infection, and there is actually an increase in brain tissue temperature.

Your brain has to be careful not to cook itself to death, so it releases “heat shock proteins.” As your brain turns up the heat to give you a fever, it releases heat shock proteins “in the prevention and repair of protein damage.” At higher temperatures, proteins can start unraveling, which is known as protein denaturing. That’s what happens when you cook egg whites—the proteins denature—but that’s not what you want happening in your head. What does this have to do with autism?

One of the causes of autism may be the dysregulation of synaptic function, meaning a dysregulation of the nerve-to-nerve signaling pathways in the brain may play “a key role” in the cause of autism spectrum disorders. Well, guess what those heat shock proteins do: They protect and sustain synaptic function. Given that, the next question is whether there is any way to activate the heat shock response without having to get a high fever infection. As you can imagine, there “is now strong interest in discovering and developing pharmacological agents capable of inducing the heat shock response” among drug companies—but broccoli beat them to it.

As I discuss in my video Fever Benefits for Autism in a Food, sulforaphane, the active ingredient in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and collard greens, activates the heat shock response. (No malaria necessary!) So, in theory, giving sulforaphane in the form of broccoli or broccoli sprouts to those with autism might reap the same kind of fever-related benefits in function.

At this point, you might be expecting me to make a crack about Big Broccoli and how such a study would never get funded, and I wouldn’t blame you…but now there are family and nonprofit foundations that just want to see people with autism get better, whether or not corporate stock prices get better too. We find out what happened in my video, Fighting Autism Brain Inflammation with Food when broccoli is actually put to the test.

This article is about the first in a three-video series on autism and food. Check out Fighting Autism Brain Inflammation with Food and Best Foods for Autism.

I also discuss autism in:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Is Candida Syndrome Real?

Does the presence of Candida in stool correlate with “Candida-hypersensitivity” symptoms, such as headaches and tiredness? And what happens when people are placed on a high-sugar diet?

Despite its extensive use in the brewing and baking industries, only about 5 percent of healthy people—1 in 20—have anti-yeast antibodies in their bloodstream, whereas that percentage is more like 60 or 70 percent in people with Crohn’s disease. Most people with Crohn’s have antibodies that react to regular baker’s, brewer’s, or nutritional yeast, which are all just different forms of a yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

But baker’s/brewer’s/nutritional yeast has never been directly implicated in Crohn’s. Maybe the antibodies are a direct reaction to it, or maybe they are a reaction to another yeast altogether and just mistakenly cross-react with regular yeast. Indeed, it was discovered that antibodies against Candida, a totally different kind of yeast (the yeast that causes thrush and vaginal yeast infections), can cross-react with Saccharomyces. Is it possible that baker’s/brewer’s/nutritional yeast was just an innocent bystander all along? I investigate this in my video Is Candida Syndrome Real?.

For nearly 30 years, we’ve known that antibodies to Saccharomyces are linked to Crohn’s disease, but instead of bread, beer, and nutritional yeast leading to Crohn’s disease, perhaps Candida is causing the Crohn’s disease and the antibodies. Or maybe Candida is the innocent bystander, and exposure to food and beverage yeast is the real culprit. You don’t know until you put it to the test: Remove yeast from the diet of Crohn’s patients, and see if they get better. If they do, then yeast was indeed the culprit. If they don’t? Then maybe Candida is the real cause.

Before I get to the study, let me first bust some Candida myths. Candida is a normal constituent of our gut flora. Get some Candida in your bloodstream, though, and it can cause a life-threatening infection. But it is normal to have some Candida in your mouth or colon—what’s important is location! location! location! It’s similar to how having stool bacteria in our colon is normal, but stool bacteria in our blood or a wound would be bad. Because of the ability of Candida to cause problems in the wrong location or in people who are immunocompromised, a Candida-syndrome theory arose, linking the presence of Candida to all sorts of health problems. This led to “mycophobia”—or fungalphobia—“spreading due to the false interpretation” that the finding of Candida in your mouth or stool is evidence of some kind of infection, rather than just being totally normal. (If you think the authors of that paper were being a little overdramatic with their phobia talk, just google “Candida” and you’ll see.)

Not only is it normal to have Candida in your gut, you apparently can’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. Give people powerful antifungal drugs, and you can drop levels down, but they pop right back up again as soon as you stop the antifungals. What about the concept that sugar feeds yeast, so you should go on a low sugar diet? It doesn’t make much sense because sugars should get absorbed high up in the small intestine and never even make it down into the colon unless you’re lactose intolerant. Indeed, there appears to be no correlation between Candida counts and sugar consumption. You can put people on a high-sugar diet by adding an additional 14 spoonfuls of sugar to their diets and still not see an effect. Of course, there are lots of science-based reasons to cut sugar from your diet, but Candida does not appear to be one of them.

There does not appear to be good “evidence for the existence of the so-called “Candida-syndrome” at all. But those are fighting words! “Few illnesses have sparked as much hostility between the medical community and a segment of the lay public as the chronic candidiasis syndrome.” The medical community has dismissed purported sufferers as emotionally disturbed and they’ve also been dubbed just plain crazy. Of course, you can’t just come out and call people crazy. “Psychiatric diagnoses need to be presented gently…” Some patients, for example, prefer to believe their mental illness is caused by the Candida, in which case doctors may just pat them on the head so they’ll take their pills. “However, patients self-diagnosed as having the yeast connection will only infrequently relinquish their illness”—some even to the extent they attempt to use their yeast as a drunk driving defense: I wasn’t drinking, your Honor. My yeast was just self-brewing beer in my gut!

The whole concept of Candida syndrome is officially derided by the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology as “speculative and unproven,” without any proof that it exists. The presumption that “the ubiquitous C. albicans [Candida] has some toxic effect on the human immune system…[is] without a trace of clinical evidence or scientific proof.” If you want proof, argued a response to the study, what about the millions of unnecessary tonsillectomy surgeries and all the radical mastectomies? At least putting people on low-sugar diets doesn’t disfigure them. Though some anti-Candida therapies can be “potentially dangerous,” antifungal drugs might breed resistance and can have side effects. Nystatin isn’t so bad, but ketoconazole can damage your liver. And, indeed, there are reports of people being treated for what may be a fake diagnosis and ending up in quite dire straits because of it. So, it’s important to know if the syndrome actually exists. Researchers decided to put it to the test in a super simple study: Give subjects stool-tubes to take samples, and ask them questions about their symptoms—headaches, stomachaches, tiredness, and all the other typical Candida syndrome symptoms. The result? The researchers found no relationship to whether or not the subjects had Candida growing in their guts. No hints of Candida syndrome could be found.

This was a bit of a tangent from the topic of my video Does Nutritional Yeast Trigger Crohn’s Disease?. I return to that topic in my video Is Nutritional Yeast Healthy for Everyone? and then offer hope for sufferers of another inflammatory condition in Dietary Cure for Hidradenitis Suppurativa.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: