Sleep, Mood, and the Autism Dynamic Duo
Updated: Mar 23, 2019
One of the most frequent topics I see asked about among parents of autistic children is regarding sleep difficulties and what to do about them. It comes from an imbalance in what the body needs to function properly. This imbalance, as I will explain, can be helped with supplements of Vitamin D and zinc, which I like to call the "Autism Dynamic Duo".
My mind is always going. It really never stops. I might get stuck on one random thought unrelated to what's going on around me, but it never goes completely blank. So it's always thinking about something (even in my sleep - my dreams get kinda weird). A busy mind can be very difficult to get to go to sleep. I used to lie awake for an hour or two at night trying to fall asleep. If I wasn't physically active during the day, my sleep schedule got very erratic. I eventually stumbled upon things to help me sleep, which I'll describe in a bit.
What's going on in the body is that we're ultimately low in melatonin, the neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) and hormone that helps us fall alseep. There are several neurotransmitters that impact the body's ability to make melatonin, many of which are out of balance in autism. The short version of what follows is this: we have too few of the neurotransmitters that calm the body, and too much of the neurotransmitters that excite the body and get it going, leaving us anxious, on edge, and making it difficult to sleep. It can be treated with vitamin D and zinc, which will help with anxiety and mood, improve sleep by making melatonin, and as a bonus help with social learning, as I will explain below
One of the reasons that we're low in melatonin is because we tend to be low in Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps make serotonin in the brain, which some call the happy hormone, because it regulates mood and alleviates anxiety and depression. And the body makes the melatonin from the serotonin. So low Vitamin D means low serotonin in the brain and low melatonin, which means we have problems with regulating mood, have more anxiety and depression, and difficult falling asleep.
The other reason is that we tend to be high in the neurotransmitters that excite the body. We tend to be high in dopamine. Dopamine is the body's reward molecule. High levels of dopamine lead to the intense focus and obsession with things that are characteristic of autism. This alone doesn't contribute to the anxiety or trouble sleeping - the difference comes in the other things the body does with the dopamine.
The body makes dopamine into norepinephrine, the fight-or-flight chemical. So being high in dopamine means we're high in norepinephrine, the result being that our fight-or-flight response is going all the time, which leaves us feeling anxious and stressed out. And adrenaline is made from norepinephrine, and so we're also high in adrenaline, which means we tend to be full of aggression and other negative emotions (and it also dilates the pupils and slows digestion). To make matters worse, since the fight-or-flight response is meant to help keep us ready to respond to things, it keeps us awake, by stopping the body from making melatonin.
Since the body is low in melatonin, you could just help your child sleep by giving them melatonin. I prefer doing something different. I take the Vitamin D instead, and I also take zinc, which I'll explain in a bit. The vitamin D will help the body make the serotonin and melatonin on its own. Be aware that vitamin D will not work like a sleeping pill - it will take time and regular doses of it to see a difference. But I prefer it because it also helps with the serotonin, which helps my mood. Vitamin D also helps with autism because it causes the body to make oxytocin and vasopressin, two chemicals that help with social learning and help the different parts of the brain talk to each other. Oxytocin is also the bonding hormone.
As I said, I also take zinc. Zinc helps to correct a genetic defect in autism that is causing the dopamine to be so high. Reducing the dopamine to closer to normal levels means that it reduces the norepinephrine and the adrenaline. So it helps to reduce that constant fight-or-flight that is stressing us out and keeping us awake. So, because of their benefits in helping me sleep, calming me and regulating my mood, I take a regimen of Vitamin D and zinc every day. I like to call them my Autism Dynamic Duo.
I first started taking vitamin D and zinc at my wife's recommendation, for reasons other than my autism, before we knew that they would benefit my autism. I took vitamin D to help with seasonal depression, and I took zinc to boost my immune system. But now, knowing what they do, I notice a difference when I don't take them. I neglected to take zinc one weekend, and my wife noticed that I was less social. I was more absorbed into my phone, fueled by the obsessive focus of too much dopamine. And just recently, after my doctor expressed concern about how much vitamin D I was taking, and ran a blood test to see if I was taking too much, I cut my dosage of vitamin D in half until the results came back. I found that I was much more anxious, including having anxiety dreams. My wife notes that I was also pacing and more neurotic. So I have firsthand experience with how much difference the Autism Dynamic Duo can make.
Note: If you are considering supplements of vitamin D and zinc, I highly recommend talking to a doctor or pharmacist about the appropriate dose.
Patrick, R. P., & Ames, B. N. (2014, June). Vitamin D hormone regulates serotonin synthesis. Part 1: Relevance for autism. Retrieved February 3, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24558199/
Zeliadt, N. (2014, November 19). Diverse dopamine defects found in people with autism. Retrieved February 3, 2019, from https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/diverse-dopamine-defects-found-in-people-with-autism/
Lake, C. R., Ziegler, M. G., & Murphy, D. L. (1977, May). Increased norepinephrine levels and decreased dopamine-beta-hydroxylase activity in primary autism. Retrieved February 3, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/558741/