Toxic Load and Autism
Autism Dietician Brittyn Coleman discusses what it is and how to reduce toxic burden
Increasing levels of toxics are an issue for all of us, but can be especially troublesome for those who may be predisposed to have higher toxic loads and decreased detoxification, such as children with autism. Toxic load refers to the accumulation of different harmful chemicals in our bodies. These toxic chemicals can come from many different sources including our food, water, air pollution, personal care products, household products, and our environment. Susceptibility to toxic overload varies person-to-person and can be impacted by various factors including genetics, environment & lifestyle, diet, gut microbiome composition and diversity, and immune system capacity.
Research suggests that children with autism have increased levels of oxidative stress and lower antioxidant capacity . This can reduce the ability to detox and excrete different chemicals and pollutants from the environment. Glutathione, a master antioxidant, is often decreased in autism which may contribute to overall oxidative stress, immune dysfunction, and may lead to neurodevelopmental abnormalities [2, 3]. Lastly, those with autism also have a higher risk of genetic mutations, such as the MTHFR genetic mutation [4, 5], which plays an important role in detoxification. For these reasons, children and adults with autism should reduce their exposure to different toxics in the environment to ultimately decrease their overall toxic load. While there are many harmful chemicals that should be avoided or reduced, the following three examples are a great place to start:
Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide that is used to kill weeds and grasses. It has been linked to cancer development and other chronic conditions and health conditions, but some associations can also be seen with autism. Findings suggest that an offspring’s risk of ASD increases following prenatal exposure to ambient pesticides within 2000 meters (~1.2 miles) of their mother’s residence during pregnancy . Infant exposure to pesticides could further increase risks for autism spectrum disorder with comorbid intellectual disability. 
The ingestion of glyphosate can also reduce the number of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract , which can impact the immune system and contribute to other gastrointestinal issues that may affect behavior and increase core autism symptoms. Glyphosate can be avoided by buying organic produce, especially the 12 “dirtiest” produce found on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.
Research suggests that children with autism present higher levels of neuroinflammation and systemic inflammation, which are hallmarks of exposure to traffic-related air pollution. . Air pollution can be associated with an increased risk of autism. [9. 10]
Air purifiers with HEPA filters can be a great way to reduce the amount of particulate matter in your home, especially since the air quality inside your home can be worse than the air quality outside. Traditional cleaning products and artificial fragrances can also contribute to poor air quality, so choosing non-toxic cleaning products and fragrance-free personal care products can be another great way to reduce air pollution in your home.
While more research needs to be done on the effects of artificial ingredients and autism, at the end of the day, food additives are synthetic (not naturally-occuring) chemicals. There are various research studies that show certain artificial ingredients, such as artificial food dyes, are contraindicated in children with autism and may contribute to sleep disturbances, attention deficit, and behavioral issues .
Artificial ingredients can be avoided by consuming whole foods (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats, poultry, and fish) or by reading the back of an ingredient label to verify no artificial ingredients have been added.
The Bottom Line
There are many other pollutants and toxic chemicals not listed above that are helpful to avoid to reduce toxic load. Increasing intake of antioxidants in the diet, such as wild blueberries, strawberries, pecans, kale, and dark chocolate can help naturally excrete toxics. Certain supplements may increase detoxification and reduce oxidative stress including NAC and glutathione. Consult your healthcare provider to be sure these are a good fit for your child before implementing diet or supplements changes.
If you’re feeling confused about how to introduce diet, supplement, and lifestyle changes for autism, sign up for the Autism Nutrition Library, a one-stop hub for all topics autism and nutrition.
 Manivasagam T, Arunadevi S, Essa MM, et al. Role of Oxidative Stress and Antioxidants in Autism. Adv Neurobiol. 2020;24:193-206.
 Chauhan A, Audhya T, Chauhan V. Brain region-specific glutathione redox imbalance in autism. Neurochem Res. 2012;37(8):1681-9.
 Rose S, Melnyk S, Pavliv O, et al. Evidence of oxidative damage and inflammation associated with low glutathione redox status in the autism brain. Transl Psychiatry. 2012;2:e134.
 El-Baz F, El-Aal MA, Kamal TM, Sadek AA, Othman AA. Study of the C677T and 1298AC polymorphic genotypes of MTHFR Gene in autism spectrum disorder. Electron Physician. 2017 Sep 25;9(9):5287-5293. doi: 10.19082/5287. PMID: 29038711; PMCID: PMC5633227.
 Shaik Mohammad N, Sai Shruti P, Bharathi V, Krishna Prasad C, Hussain T, Alrokayan SA, Naik U, Radha Rama Devi A. Clinical utility of folate pathway genetic polymorphisms in the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders. Psychiatr Genet. 2016 Dec;26(6):281-286. doi: 10.1097/YPG.0000000000000152. PMID: 27755291.
 Von ehrenstein OS, Ling C, Cui X, et al. Prenatal and infant exposure to ambient pesticides and autism spectrum disorder in children: population based case-control study. BMJ. 2019;364:l962.
 Argou-cardozo I, Zeidán-chuliá F. Clostridium Bacteria and Autism Spectrum Conditions: A Systematic Review and Hypothetical Contribution of Environmental Glyphosate Levels. Med Sci (Basel). 2018;6(2)
 Volk HE, Lurmann F, Penfold B, Hertz-picciotto I, Mcconnell R. Traffic-related air pollution, particulate matter, and autism. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(1):71-7.
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 Flores-pajot MC, Ofner M, Do MT, Lavigne E, Villeneuve PJ. Childhood autism spectrum disorders and exposure to nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter air pollution: A review and meta-analysis. Environ Res. 2016;151:763-776.
 Bakthavachalu P, Kannan SM, Qoronfleh MW. Food Color and Autism: A Meta-Analysis. Adv Neurobiol. 2020;24:481-504.