Fresh scientific research linking new gene mutations to autism risk has been spun as a breakthrough for genetic research.  Some have also noted that environment may well be influencing the genome.  But these news reports are missing a bigger story: that the environment is influencing our whole bodies – and that we can do something about this to reduce our risk, protect our health and even help autism.

These new – or “de novo” – gene mutations mean that a child has a new mutation that they did not inherit from their parents.  Think about that.  Genetic but not inherited.

Are we seeing more new mutations now than in the past?  If so, why?  That and the increasing numbers of children with autism both suggest a role for the environment.

We don’t know for certain, but Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) believes the environment is playing a role in de novo mutations. Here’s how he put it on PBS News Hour in the final interchange:

DR. THOMAS INSEL:  …the reality here is that some autism is truly genetic and it’s certainly likely that some autism is going to be more due to environmental causes. What these new studies suggest is that the two may really fit together, that the environment may be affecting the risk for autism by influencing the genome itself and actually increasing the likelihood of these spontaneous mutations.

That is an excellent start. But if you leave it at this, we might think this is just about genes and just about autism, and we will be left with nothing to do but worry about our odds.

Autism and more: This is about autism, but not JUST autism. Why?  Because these de novo mutations are hardly if at all more common in autism than in everyone else.  Most of them don’t have anything to do with autism — though they may relate to other problems. These kinds of de novo mutations occur in many places on the genome, probably randomly (though some locations may be more vulnerable).  The impact depends on the location – which is probably just a matter of chance. If your child happens to have one of these mutations in a gene conferring autism vulnerability, they may become autistic.  But “spontaneous” (often environmentally induced) gene mutations are also associated with many other conditions, including cancer.

How does environment affect genes?  There are three major ways:

1.  By direct hits to our genes

2.  By damaging our ability to repair our genes

3.  By impacting our whole bodies, creating disarray in our metabolic and immune systems that leads to more mutations

The older you get the more time you’ve had to build up a “body burden” of chemicals.  This makes us vulnerable to de novo mutations in our body that can lead to many illnesses.  Chemical body burden may also account for one finding from the new studies that may alarm older couples – the increased mutations in the sperm of older men that  increase the risk of having a child with autism.

What can you do?  Use Whole-Body Strategies.  To protect your genes you need to help your whole body.

First and foremost, you need to know that nutrition can have an impact on all three of these levels.  Here is news you can use to reduce your risk:

1.  Be prudent: Reduce your avoidable environmental exposures as much as possible, as many chemicals are known to increase risk of mutations.  This means looking at everything under your sink and in your bathroom  and garage, and asking whether you can get the jobs done with less chemicals.

2.  Support your DNA-repair machinery: There is a lot of science showing that nutrition is important to DNA repair.  Deficiencies can contribute to failure of DNA-repair mechanisms — and improving nutrition can make DNA repair work better.  (Particularly important are essential fatty acids (omega-3’s), Vitamin D and minerals like zinc, molybdenum and selenium).

3.  Support your health: The same nutritional support that’s good for your DNA repair mechanisms is good for your overall health, and your metabolic and immune systems in particular. It can also reduce your risk.  Antioxidants are very important here (like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and many more substances you can get from fresh fruits and vegetables). They mop up “free radicals” that might otherwise damage your genes.

My new book, The Autism Revolution: Whole Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be, includes more details about these and other ways to support health and help autism.

The bottom line: The bottom line is that for millions of us, our environment is giving us more toxic damage and less high quality nutritional resources to protect ourselves — not because of nature, but because of human practices.

To protect ourselves, we need things to be the other way around.  That takes effort but it’s worth it.

Not just personal: This is big. Think about our food supply — mineral-depleted soil, pesticides and nutrient-poor processed food may be increasing our vulnerability. De novo mutations may be yet another message from our planet to protect our biology – and our genome – from harm.

What about people with autism? Most people with autism don’t have that diagnosis because of de novo mutations – and for that matter, we haven’t identified a genetic “cause” or contributor in the majority of people with autism who have been tested. Gene tests may get more sensitive in the future, but we really need to talk about the environment — and once we open that door, we need to talk about the whole body.

As I said, environment can lead not just to gene mutations, but also to whole body metabolic and immune disarray, which we now know is much more common in autism than de novo mutations. This disarray – or confused chemistry — can affect the brain – studies show this in autism. And many reports suggest that improving the situation can help the brain to function better.  Remember that I’m recommending simple practical approaches that you can do on your own — I’m not advising you to run out and take drugs or give them to your child to accomplish this because they have not been tested for this purpose and there is a serious risk of side effects.

Just do it: So while we wait through the next several decades or more that it will take to sort out the new complexity in autism genetics, and the years it will take to painstakingly test specific drugs for specific molecular targets, there is plenty we can do right now.  Reducing toxic exposures and optimizing nutrition are prudent and safe approaches.  And if you pursue them with vigor, you can get powerful results.

Cleaning up our acts around toxics and nutrition is a practical way to reduce personal risk, optimize personal function, and get social policies in line with health promotion and risk reduction.  These personal and public policy approaches can play an important role in protecting our gene pool, our planet, our full potential — and the quality of our everyday lives.

By Martha R. Herbert, Ph.D., M.D. , Neurologist and Neuroscientist, Harvard Medical School
Author of The Autism Revolution: Whole Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be, Random House/Harvard Health Publications, March 2012
April 5, 2012


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