Could a simple vitamin deficiency be the culprit behind autism?

I know I talk about vitamin D a lot. There are a couple reasons for that: One, I am convinced it’s one of the most crucial vitamins for the human body. And two, more research just keeps coming out about its incredible health benefits.

Vitamin D is best known for its bone health benefits. But in recent years, it’s been linked to countless other health conditions. It protects against a variety of different cancers, including breast, prostate, and colon cancers. It improves memory. It decreases risk of heart disease, depression, multiple sclerosis, flu, and death from any cause. The list just goes on and on.

Still, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface regarding all the good it does for us. In fact, today I came across a study that shows vitamin D starts to make a difference in our health before we’re even born. According to this new research, vitamin D may actually protect against autism.

The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, linked low levels of vitamin D in early pregnancy with autism. Pregnant women in the study who were identified as having low vitamin D levels at 20 weeks gestation were more likely to have a child who showed autistic traits by age 6.

This isn’t the first time research has linked vitamin D to brain and nervous system development. Other studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency in utero or in early life has detrimental psychiatric and neurological effects. So it makes sense that the most common brain disorder in the U.S. — autism — would have a vitamin D tie-in.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD refers to a group of brain development disorders. Some common traits are problems with social interaction, communication challenges, and repetitive behaviors. Sometimes it’s associated with other issues like mental disability, coordination problems, gastrointestinal issues, and more. The degree to which kids are affected ranges wildly. I’ve seen some kids who have never spoken a word, and others who on the surface seem to function relatively normally.

But regardless of the severity, autism spectrum disorder diagnoses are on the rise. Just a few decades, only 1 in 10,000 children had it. Now, as I said above, that number has skyrocketed to 1 in 68.

The vitamin D link is really interesting, because we know that vitamin D deficiency is also on the rise. It’s incredibly common, especially in pregnant women. The American Pregnancy Association estimates that between 40 and 60 percent of the entire U.S. population (including pregnant women) is vitamin D deficient.

And to be frank, their definition of deficient and my definition of deficient are two totally different numbers. I suspect deficiency rates are closer to 80 to 90 percent of the entire population.

It used to be that we got enough vitamin D from being outside and soaking up the sun’s rays. But these days, with 10-12 hour workdays as the norm, most of us are hardly ever in the sun.

Even those who do spend time in the sun tend to slather themselves in sunscreen first to prevent skin cancer. But sunscreen blocks the conversion of vitamin D in the body to its active form.

You can definitely increase your vitamin D levels by spending more time in the sun before applying sunscreen. But you’d have to be practically naked outdoors for 20 minutes per day to get as much as you need. And even still, you’d only be getting enough certain times of the year, depending on how far north you live.

Vitamin D is found in some foods — cheese, salmon, mushrooms, and eggs (sounds like an amazing omelet to me). But only in relatively small quantities.

The only reliable way to get enough vitamin D on a consistent basis is through nutritional supplementation.

For pregnant women, prenatal vitamins are a good start, but even they only provide a pitiful 400 IU of vitamin D per day.

I personally recommend between 5,000 and 10,000 IU per day (for everyone, including pregnant women). And as always, make sure you’re taking the highly absorbable form, D3.