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Essential Oils

As with many of the products promoted at AutismOne, the problem with claims related to essential oils is that the claims are greatly exaggerated and do not include disclaimers about the limitations of the current evidence or the possible risks involved in using them (as is required by ethical and legal guidelines for actual medical practitioners).

“Kid Nurse”, a pediatric nurse practitioner, has written a two-part series on essential oils.

  1. Why Essential Oils Aren’t Natural highlights the double standard we have about the burden of proof for things we perceive as “natural”
  2. House of Cards: The Toxic Combination of Essential Oils and Multi-Level Marketing highlights the problems with combining exaggerated health claims with multi-level marketing.

From Science-Based Medicine, dōTERRA: Multilevel Marketing of Essential Oils provides links and information about the evidence for and against the use of essential oils for specific ailments.

FDA warning letters to dōTERRA and Young Living, two of the largest sellers of essential oils in the US. Here are all the FDA warning letters that relate to essential oils.

FDA information on essential oils highlights that regulations are determined by the intended use. For example, if you intend to use EOs as a fragrance to make your house smell nice, it is not classified as a drug and not subject to the higher level of scrutiny required for drugs. However, as soon as a health claim is made, the product must comply with regulations for drugs regarding safety and efficacy. Be skeptical of health claims being made about these products and read instructions carefully about how to use them safely

Epigenetics

Much like the microbiome, epigenetics (neuroepigenetics, in particular) is a very young field and it has been misappropriated in much the same way.

Epigenetics literally means “over the genome”. It encompasses all meiotically and mitotically heritable changes in gene expression that are not coded in the DNA sequence itself. If we break that down, there are some key points to note:

  • “Not coded in the DNA”: There is no change in the DNA sequence. Thus, for these to be heritable, there must be mechanisms of inheritance besides DNA replication.
  • “Changes in gene expression”: The underlying assumption of all epigenetic studies should be that these changes alter gene expression (or change how inducible or repressible gene expression is, but that’s harder to measure).
  • “Meiotically and mitotically heritable”: This means heritable through cell division, but not necessarily heritable from parent to offspring.

(This description is from this article).

At this point, we know very little about epigenetics in autism and definitely not enough to make clinical recommendations about changing the epigenome and altering neurobehavioral phenotypes. This 2015 review provides an overview of the current state of knowledge.

The role of epigenetic change in autism spectrum disorders

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a heterogeneous group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by problems with social communication, social interaction, and repetitive or restricted behaviors. ASD are comorbid with other disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy, Rett syndrome, and Fragile X syndrome. Neither the genetic nor the environmental components have been characterized well enough to aid diagnosis or treatment of non-syndromic ASD. However, genome-wide association studies have amassed evidence suggesting involvement of hundreds of genes and a variety of associated genetic pathways. Recently, investigators have turned to epigenetics, a prime mediator of environmental effects on genomes and phenotype, to characterize changes in ASD that constitute a molecular level on top of DNA sequence. Though in their infancy, such studies have the potential to increase our understanding of the etiology of ASD and may assist in the development of biomarkers for its prediction, diagnosis, prognosis, and eventually in its prevention and intervention. This review focuses on the first few epigenome-wide association studies of ASD and discusses future directions.

These articles that discuss the general misinterpretation of epigenetics:

Electromagnetic fields (EMFs)

Despite claims that low levels of exposure to non-ionizing radiation cause all sorts of ailments, scientific evidence does not support a link between normal low-level exposures and any adverse health outcome.

The World Health Organization summarizes the scientific evidence to date:

  • A wide range of environmental influences causes biological effects. ‘Biological effect’ does not equal ‘health hazard’. Special research is needed to identify and measure health hazards.
  • At low frequencies, external electric and magnetic fields induce small circulating currents within the body. In virtually all ordinary environments, the levels of induced currents inside the body are too small to produce obvious effects.
  • The main effect of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields is heating of body tissues.
  • There is no doubt that short-term exposure to very high levels of electromagnetic fields can be harmful to health. Current public concern focuses on possible long-term health effects caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields at levels below those required to trigger acute biological responses.
  • WHO’s International EMF Project was launched to provide scientifically sound and objective answers to public concerns about possible hazards of low-level electromagnetic fields.
  • Despite extensive research, to date, there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health.
  • The focus of international research is the investigation of possible links between cancer and electromagnetic fields, at power line and radiofrequencies.

The WHO coordinates the International EMF Project which continues to study the effects of EMFs on health despite little scientific plausibility for an effect, due to consumer concern and fill in some gaps in knowledge to help set safe levels of exposure. There have been many many studies yet no evidence to date supports the idea that exposure to low levels of low frequency, non-ionizing radiation had an adverse effect on health.

This brochure (also from the WHO) states that “no major public health risks have emerged from several decades of EMF research, but uncertainties remain.” It also outlines the challenges of these studies. The primary challenge is that there is no plausible hypothesis for just how low levels of EMF would cause damage and adverse health effects.

› There is no clear understanding if and how EMF, at the low levels emitted by common appliances, might cause damage to cells

›If a common EMF exposure were found to cause a disease, it would likely be a rare one. Demonstrating such a relationship would require complex population studies

›New EMF emitting technologies are constantly being introduced on the market, resulting in different types of exposure

This information page from the US Environmental Protection Agency explains the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing (the EMFs and radiofrequencies in question here) to highlight why there is no plausible hypothesis for how non-ionizing radiation would have significant adverse health effects. The page also includes links to other resources from the EPA on this topic, as well as resources from other scientific agencies about the regulations of all types of radiation.

From the US EPA
From the US EPA

The MTHFR Gene

MTHFR stands for methyltetrahydrofolate reductase. This is an enzyme that determines how quickly people process folate. People who carry a specific variant in this gene process folate a bit slower than people with the more common variants. (Info from the CDC).

Folate/folic acid is naturally occurring but we do not get enough from our diet to prevent neural tube defects, like spina bifida. Food can be supplemented to provide adequate levels of folate to prevent these birth defects. In the US, fortification of grains has reduced the rate of neural tube defects by 35%. Other countries around the world have seen reductions in these defects as well after starting fortification programs. See here for rates before and after fortification for various countries.

The source of this claim that MTHFR mutations have anything to do with autism seems to come from one naturopath who thinks that MTHFR mutations cause nearly every chronic disease (this is one of those red flags – the “one true cause” problem).

This article from Skeptical Raptor, MTHFR Gene Mutations are the Root of all Health Problems, explains the biology and chemistry of the MTHFR gene and the folate cycle and many of the false claims made about the MTHFR gene.

  1. MTHFR gene mutations are a serious problem if left untreated.
  2. The consequences of MTHFR gene mutations can be easily diagnosed and treated, even in the young.
  3. MTHFR gene mutations are, as of the date of this article, unrelated to any vaccine adverse effect.
  4. MTHFR gene mutations do not lead directly to various disorders and diseases, only the the lack of a cheap and effective treatments do.
  5. Quacks who are pushing MTHFR gene mutations as the basis of a wide range of diseases are in it for money, because, it is easily and cheaply treated (in most cases).

This article from Science-Based Medicine, Dubious MTHFR genetic mutation testing, discusses the merits of testing for MTHFR mutations.

On the one hand, you could take the advice of geneticists with advanced degrees who’ve spent their careers researching genetic mutations and their effects on human health, plus several medical organizations and other reputable research sources. They think testing is unnecessary and offer lower-cost options where there is genuine concern.

On the other hand, you could listen to a naturopath with no particular background in anything, who never published a single article in a reputable journal, who has fashioned himself into a genetics expert, who tells patients to get online testing then sells them dietary supplements to treat their “condition,” who promotes a number of dubious organizations and products, lectures with notorious anti-vaccination cranks, and sells online courses to the public and “professionals” to promote his views, and, in case of the latter, get themselves listed on his website as experts.

Energy Healing

Energy healing, under any of its many names, is basically faith healing.

There is currently no conclusive evidence that energy healing is more effective than placebo.  Furthermore, there’s no known mechanism whereby an unmeasurable energy could be manipulated to improve one’s health. (From this article on Science-Based Medicine, Energy Healing in Maryland)

Read Placebo, Are You There? for one of the best discussions of the placebo effect. This is relevant to many of the treatments discussed on these pages.

Cannabis

Proponents of using marijuana for autism confuse the actual science of pharmacognosy with self-medicating with a drug of abuse in an untested and uncontrolled manner. Pharmacognosy examines an herb, plant, or other natural product with a goal to identify the chemicals within it that have pharmacological activity against a condition or a disease; the active ingredient is then tested for safety and efficacy and proper dosing before being approved by the FDA. Preliminary evidence suggesting that endocannabinoid signalling may play a role in specific phenotypes of autistic individuals is a far cry from the exaggerated claims that using marijuana is safe and beneficial.

For more details about the issues and science of using cannabis for autism:

  1. Medical marijuana for autism and autism biomed quackery: One in the same and on the verge of approval in Michigan
  2. Evidence prevails: No medical marijuana for autism in Michigan—for now
  3. Medical Uses of Marijuana-Hitting the Bong of Science: for some general information about medical marijuana

Stem Cells

This is yet another case of preliminary scientific findings have been misinterpreted and exaggerated. Claims about stem cells for many issues has gotten so out of hand that the FDA issued a warning about stem cell therapies. Note that only one stem cell treatment has been approved in the US.

Stem cell therapies offer the potential to treat diseases or conditions for which few treatments exist.

Stem cells, sometimes called the body’s “master cells,” are the precursor cells that develop into blood, brain, bones and all of your organs. Their promise in medical treatments is that they have the potential to repair, restore, replace and regenerate cells that could then be used to treat many medical conditions and diseases.

But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is concerned that the hope that patients have for cures not yet available may leave them vulnerable to unscrupulous providers of stem cell treatments that are illegal and potentially harmful.

FDA cautions consumers to make sure that any stem cell treatment they are considering has been approved by FDA or is being studied under a clinical investigation that has been submitted to and allowed to proceed by FDA.

FDA has approved only one stem cell product, Hemacord, a cord blood-derived product manufactured by the New York Blood Center and used for specified indications in patients with disorders affecting the body’s blood-forming system.

Info on clinical trials of stem cell treatments for autism

Chronic Lyme

Proponents of chronic Lyme disease claim that the bacterial infection lives on and continues to cause symptoms long after the initial infection. While the long-term, chronic effects of Lyme disease are real and often difficult to deal with, this is not caused by long-term active infection by the bacteria and cannot be treated with long-term antibiotic treatment, which carries its own risks. Proponents of chronic Lyme seem to be committing the one true cause fallacy, naming nearly every possible symptom known to man as caused by chronic Lyme infection. In the face of a lack of evidence to support their claims, proponents of chronic Lyme resort to conspiracy theories to explain away the lack of support for their claims. Claims that autism is caused by chronic Lyme infection are baseless.

Further reading on Chronic Lyme: