Updated on April 13, 2023
As a developmental disorder, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) implies a systemic, multidimensional, and interrelated set of symptoms that continuously affect individuals throughout their lives. As a result, many individuals with ASD require ongoing medical support.
However, even strict adherence to conventional treatments often fails to produce complete and durable relief, particularly when it comes to social withdrawal, deficiencies of communication, and impairment of executive functions. Although pharmaceutical and behavioral interventions can reduce the severity of these symptoms, many individuals will continue to struggle with them to some degree. This has left many individuals and caregivers searching for complementary options for dealing with autism that might provide much-needed assistance.
Unfortunately, many alternative options claiming to address ASD symptoms are not supported by scientific evidence, and some—like chelation therapy or hyperbaric therapy—can even cause harm. But there are promising alternative options. Although some of the most compelling alternative options are still investigational, early evidence suggests they could provide meaningful benefits for autistic individuals. Here, we take a closer look at three alternative options for dealing with autism and examine their potential: glutathione, secretin, and immunoglobulin.
Glutathione (GSH) is a powerful antioxidant produced by human cells. Glutathione’s potential to benefit ASD lies in its ability to mitigate the oxidative stress caused by free radicals.* On a molecular level, the glutathione present in cells has two states: oxidized and reduced. Reduced glutathione (GSSG) attracts free radicals and reacts with them, preventing them from harming cells.
After reduced glutathione has reacted with as many free radicals as possible, it transitions to the oxidized state, and cells can then safely decompose the free radicals and recycle the glutathione molecule. After recycling, the glutathione molecule becomes reduced again and can return to capture more free radicals.
Using glutathione as a complementary option in dealing with autism represents an exciting approach, because studies consistently show that individuals with autism exhibit high levels of oxidative stress.* That stress is likely a significant cause of an imbalanced inflammatory response in autistic individuals, especially in the context of brain health and the cellular damage caused by oxidative stress.*
This might, in part, be attributable to the fact that the natural production of glutathione is typically either impaired or otherwise inefficient in individuals with ASD. Indeed, a study published in 2012 found that glutathione level in the cerebellum of individuals with ASD was on average 44.6 percent lower than in healthy controls.
Research has hypothesized that a lower level of glutathione might be correlated to higher levels of inflammatory response and neuronal dysfunction.* In samples of post-mortem brain matter, for example, the deceased individuals with ASD exhibited 72 percent higher concentrations of biomarker molecules that signify oxidative-stress-based DNA damage.
Bolstering the level of glutathione via supplementation could be a viable way of supporting the body’s ability to fight oxidative stress and reducing the risk of damage to critical brain tissues.* Although no clinical trials investigating glutathione as a complementary option for providing nutritional support for ASD have been completed thus far, recent research results will continue to spur the development of glutathione supplementation as a prospective complementary option for dealing with autism.
Historically, glutathione has suffered from notoriously poor absorption, which has limited its therapeutic use. Today, however, advanced delivery systems, such as those introduced by Tesseract Medical Research, are enhancing bioavailability and making glutathione supplementation a viable complementary option.
Given the link between gastrointestinal dysfunction and autism spectrum disorder, chemicals that impact the gastrointestinal tract are thought to potentially affect a range of ASD symptoms. The reason behind this lies in the gut-brain axis, the bidirectional connection between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. Evidence suggests that dysfunction of the gut can contribute to neurological and behavioral ASD symptoms, while neurological phenomena might affect gastrointestinal health.
Secretin is a hormone that regulates the acidity of the gastrointestinal tract, giving it a critical role in gut health. As a result, researchers have long suspected it could be useful in correcting gastrointestinal deviations associated with ASD. Specifically, secretin therapy inhibits the production of stomach acids, which might address some of the gastrointestinal pain and diarrhea that individuals with ASD often experience. By acting beneficially on the gut-brain axis, this could, in turn, positively affect a variety of neurological and behavioral ASD symptoms.
However, one early investigation into the efficacy of secretin therapy in the treatment of behavioral ASD symptoms reported contradictory results. In the trial, the language abilities and repetitive behaviors of individuals were measured both before and after secretin administration.
While objective measurements of participants’ language and social abilities showed that a five-week course of once-weekly secretin therapy had no impact at any point in time, 70 percent of the participants’ caregivers believed the therapy had caused moderate to high improvements, and 85 percent wanted to continue with secretin therapy after the trial concluded. These results suggest that secretin might provide intangible benefits for individuals with ASD that caregivers experience—like higher levels of contentment or improved resilience to behavioral irritants—but that are not detected by standard clinical assessment tools. However, they could also simply be confirmation of the power of the placebo effect.
Despite positive reports from caregivers, scientific investigation into secretin therapy still has not clarified which aspects of ASD secretin might address despite years of study. A systematic review of 16 clinical trials investigating secretin therapy for ASD found that secretin therapy did not consistently improve the core ASD behavioral symptoms of social withdrawal, irritability, and communication deficiencies.
Additionally, while there is evidence that secretin does address gastrointestinal symptoms in some individuals, improvements are not universal. As a result, secretin is not regarded as an effective complementary option for dealing with autism within the scientific community.
Individuals with ASD have a high degree of autoimmunity, meaning that their immune systems are frequently activated by innocuous elements of their bodies. This activation subsequently causes an imbalanced inflammatory response, which is linked to many dysfunctions, such as irritability, social withdrawal, deficits in executive function, impaired digestion, and gut pain—all of which can be experienced by individuals with ASD.
In particular, individuals with ASD exhibit excessive quantities of white blood cells in their central nervous system. To manage the neural inflammatory response caused by these white blood cells via errant autoimmune activation, researchers suspect that using one of the body’s immune modulators—immunoglobulin—could be beneficial.
In the context of autism, immunoglobulins are antibodies that are not intended to tag any specific pathogen. The body produces immunoglobulins in high volumes at all times, and individuals with ASD are no exception. However, individuals with ASD typically produce fewer immunoglobulins in their brains than healthy individuals do.
While the extent of under-production is highly variable, it might be correlated with symptom severity; some research suggests that individuals who produce less immunoglobulin also experience worse irritability and social withdrawal. Although the cause of this correlation remains unknown, researchers are investigating the possibility of using immunoglobulin to improve symptoms.
A 2018 pilot study of 17 participants examined the impact of intravenous immunoglobulin on social responsiveness, maladaptive behaviors, and stereotyped behaviors. Participants were given immunoglobulin infusions once daily for 21 days for each cycle of treatment. In total, the study performed 10 cycles of treatment for one year. At the end of the study, researchers used a battery of clinical rubrics to assess the participants’ symptoms.
The broadest of these rubrics, the Clinical Global Impressions scale, found dramatic improvements in comparison to measurements taken at the beginning of the study. Before immunoglobulin therapy, participants exhibited an average of 4.8 points on the scale’s metric for overall behavioral symptom severity. After therapy, the average was 3.86 points—nearly a full point of improvement. Other metrics were also impressive. Before therapy, participants exhibited impairment of social interaction abilities rated at an average of 4.93. After therapy, the average rating was 3.79. In other words, immunoglobulin therapy significantly benefited the participants’ behavioral symptoms.
More research is needed to determine whether immunoglobulin therapy is safe for all individuals with ASD. However, current evidence suggests it is well-tolerated. While some participants in the pilot study experienced side effects like headaches, gut pain, and nausea, these side effects didn’t cause any participants to withdraw from the study. Nonetheless, researchers know little about how the immune systems of individuals with ASD differ from those in healthy individuals, meaning further investigation will be critical.
Glutathione, secretin, and immunoglobulin are at dramatically different stages of the research process as it pertains to their applications for benefiting individuals with ASD. Secretin’s moment in the spotlight appears to have passed after multiple studies failed to find clinical evidence of efficacy. In contrast, immunoglobulin therapy might enter widespread use if clinical trials continue to produce impressive results and its safety can be confirmed.
Glutathione is considered by many to have an important role as a complementary option for dealing with autism because of its ability to inhibit oxidative stress and to help maintain a normal inflammatory response in the brain, provided that it can deliver beneficial clinical results in forthcoming trials.* High-quality glutathione supplements formulated for optimal therapeutic benefit have already been introduced to the market by pioneering manufacturers such as Tesseract Medical Research.
As a result, practitioners and their patients can integrate cutting-edge complementary options in their treatment plans today, potentially allowing them to address ASD and enhance health and well-being.
Tesseract Medical Research covers cutting-edge research related to innovative therapies for gastrointestinal issues, neurological disorders, and other health conditions.
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