Antioxidants and Oxidative Stress in Autism

The brain is not malformed.  The brain is irritated. So you need to reduce the irriation and the inflammatio in the brain.  I am talking about an anti-inflammation diet with foods from all colours of the rainbow.

~ Martha Herbert, MD, Pediatric Neurologist and Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard University

When we breathe, oxygen is converted to water in the mitochondria.  A certain percentage of the oxygen escapes (1-5%) leading to reactive oxygen species (ROS), also called free radicals.  Free radicals can cause damage to molecules in our body which requires our cells to have protection.

We need to have enough antioxidants to directly stop or to repair damaged proteins if they have been damaged by oxidation.  Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant and helps to protect mitochondria and detoxify harmful toxins like heavy metals and chemicals like pesticides and bisphenol A.  If we can’t manage ROS and protect cells, the result is oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress causes the mitochondria to shut down.  Mitochondria are required to produce all the energy in the body to support the function of every cell in the body.  A crucial balance between ROS and antioxidants allows the body to function optimally.

Oxidative stress is a hallmark of the medical aspects of autism spectrum disorder.  The causes of oxidative stress include cell danger response, immunoexcitotoxicity, digestive problems, sleep disturbances and methylation impairment.

Antioxidants protect cells from damage and/or death caused by free radicals.  Free radicals are created when the body encounters toxins and attempts to neutralize them.  If the body does not have enough antioxidants, free radicals cause oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress has been associated with developmental delay and neurological disorders, as well as many other diseases processes.  Recent studies show greater oxidative stress in children with autism. Other studies show that antioxidant nutrients can improve autistic symptoms.  Oxidative stress creates a tremendous amount of inflammation that contributes to language, social and cognitive impairment.  There are a number of studies that can be found at under the science section.

One example of how high oxidative stress disrupts the system is in the breakdown of DOPAMINE in the digestive tract.  Dysregulated dopamine levels are responsible for many symptoms and behaviours in children with ASD and AD/HD.

 High dopamine levels lead to many issues including:

  • Sensory issues – turns up the volume on all of our senses
  • Transitional tantrums
  • Processing and organizational issues
  • Self-stimulating behaviour
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsivity
  • Restlessness
  • Fixations and obsessive behaviour
  • Rigidity

Environmental toxicity increases the need for antioxidants as the body attempts to neutralize harmful substances like heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, fire retardants and other chemicals.  If antioxidants are not able to stop the production of ROS it leads to damaged cells, nerves, tissues, enzymes and organ systems.

Antioxidants rich foods include:

  • Berries
  • Ginger
  • Onions
  • Lemons, oranges and grapefruit
  • Kale, spinach and broccoli
  • Green tea
  • Tumeric

Antioxidants include:

  • Carotenoids
  • Glutathione
  • CoQ10
  • Flavenoids
  • Vitamin A,
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin C
  • Minerals (ex. Selenium)
  • Curcuimin



Chauhan A1, Chauhan V.  Oxidative stress in autism.  Pathophysiology. 2006 Aug;13(3):171-81. Epub 2006 Jun 12.