Magnesium and Autism

Last November I accepted a position as a SMART State Endowed Chair in Translational Neurotherapeutics at the University of South Carolina (USC). Due to a number of circumstances I was not able to move until a couple of weeks ago. During this period of time I have been kept busy moving the belongings of both our household and my laboratories. Upon arrival at USC my office did not have a computer forcing me to share a laptop with my wife. Hopefully this will help explain the lack of activity in my blog during this period of time.

In writing the present blog I was tempted to reflect for inspiration upon Bernard Rimland. He was a prolific writer who had an established social media presence before the internet, Facebook and Twitter. Bernie wrote almost weekly columns for newsletters and used to personally answer a multitude of letters addressed to him on a daily basis. Just to be fair, Bernie had a little bit of help in choosing the subject for his newsletters from the many ideas he received over the mail. Bernie believed this information, stemming from parents and patients, to be quite valuable and worth collecting. Indeed, after a period of time Bernie started asking his mail connections about matters of importance. Probably the most important question, and the most controversial, was what interventions had proven of benefit in the treatment of autism? Without prompting many individuals started advocating for the benefits of dietary supplements. Some people advocated the need to supplement the diet of autistic individuals with pyridoxine (the water soluble vitamin known as B6). However, high levels of pyridoxine can cause nerve damage due to low levels of magnesium. Physicians recommend using magnesium along with pyridoxine in order to prevent side effects. More recently magnesium supplementation by itself has acquired some popularity. (Note a good review on the subject was offered by Bernard Rimland in Autism Research Review International, volume 1, issue number 4).

Magnesium is a mineral found in comparatively high amounts in our bodies. It has been found to mediate several hundred biochemical reactions that keep the body working normally by regulating energy production and the levels of many important nutrients. Half of the magnesium is stored in the bones. Having a magnesium deficiency is very rare but low levels are common. It is said that about 30% of the population is not taking the Recommended Daily Allowance of magnesium. Trying to establish a deficiency based on blood tests can be misleading as only 1% of your total magnesium is found in the blood. True magnesium deficiencies are primarily seen among African Americans and the elderly and manifested clinically as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. Individual symptoms of magnesium deficiency include irritability, nausea, vomiting, arrhythmias, poor nail growth, muscle spasms, weakness, insomnia, and seizures.

A Cochrane review of the literature for pyridoxine and magnesium supplementation in autism found few studies that would comply with criteria for a meta-analysis. Results were inconclusive and the study populations small. The review concluded that the use of these supplements could not be supported and that additional trials were needed. The review itself has been criticized for having excluded a good number of positive reports. However, these studies suffered from methodological flaws, were small, and could confound the literature as only positive results tend to be published.

There are a few case reports of magnesium deficiency in autism spectrum disorder individuals. It is difficult to appraise the significance of these findings. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency are not generalized through the autism population. However, some autistic individuals may be prone to this deficiency based on their dietary habits. It is well known that many autistic individuals have a diet lacking in fiber. Foods that are high in fibers are generally high in magnesium. Also vomiting, diarrhea, taking diuretics and some gastrointestinal conditions occasionally reported in autistic individuals (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis) can cause magnesium deficiencies. (See previous post: Benefits of a Fiber Diet for Autistic Individuals ).

Though dietary supplements are available its always preferable to get magnesium naturally through your diet: leafy greens, avocados, beans almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, whole grains, fish, kiwis, and molasses. Other measures that may help increase your magnesium levels would include limiting your soda and tea intakes, salt and alcohol.

6 responses to “Magnesium and Autism

  1. Interesting to learn about the possibility of magnesium. Also, have you permanently moved to USC because I still see information about Louisville in your profile.


  2. Dr. Rimland’s introduction to Biomedical Assessment Options by Pangborn and Baker described his study of high-dose vitamins in several hundred autistic children, after receiving parents’ reports of their effectiveness: “The results were quite positive, especially for vitamin B6. . . . Adding magnesium to the B6 has repeatedly been found to be essential for best results. . . . [O]ur studies . . . have shown that almost 50% of autistic children and adults will improve when given B6 and magnesium, and that on average, the optimal dosage is 8mg of B6 and 4mg of magnesium per pound of body weight per day. The B6 and magnesium combination has been found to be extremely safe . . . .”

    In Orthomolecular Psychiatry (1974;3(4)371-377) Rimland related how he turned to nutritionist Adelle Davis for advice when side effects of high-dose B6 appeared. She implicated magnesium deficiency from the B6. “It seems that certain of the vitamins (B6 in particular) combine with the magnesium in the body in order to perform their functions, and by adding the B6 without the supplemental magnesium we were creating a relative deficiency of magnesium.”


  3. I think Dr. Rimland would have been very excited by,and feel somewhat validated from,the work that has been done with cerebral folate deficiency and autism.Research into cerebral folate deficiency was still in its infancy at the time of Dr. Rimland’s death in 2006.

    But for all of the great and pioneering work Rimland did,his legacy will will forever be tarnished by his very vocal adoption of the belief that mercury in vaccines caused autism.Very sad indeed.


  4. Pingback: Autism: antibiotics and the microbiome | Cortical Chauvinism·

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