The Stress Response
When I get stressed out or anxious, I get a lot of pent up energy. My muscles get tense, and my arms and legs almost feel as if they're on fire. I'll find myself shaking them to block out the feeling as a form of stimming.
I get the same way if I eat foods containing MSG, or MSG-like ingredients such as modified food starch or yeast extract.
What's the connection between the two? A neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) called glutamate. It's right in MSG's name: Mono-sodium Glutamate.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to demonize glutamate or say it's a bad thing. We need glutamate. It's the main excitatory neurotransmitter, meaning that it helps make it possible for nerve signals to be passed along the nervous system and pass through the body. Without it, it would be difficult for the body to do much of anything, and impossible to get excited.
Glutamate's opposite is GABA - Gamma-aminobutyric acid. GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it helps calm down nerve signals from being passed along the nervous system. It helps calm the body down.
Like glutamate isn't inherently bad, GABA isn't inherently good. Too much GABA, and nerve signals can't get passed along. Your heart couldn't be told to contract and beat, your diaphragm couldn't be told to move and allow you to breathe, and none of your muscles could move. Too little GABA, and too many nerve signals get passed along. Too many pain sensations and sensory information make it to the brain, and too many signals to move it to the muscles.
As you can probably guess, in order to function properly, the body needs the appropriate balance between glutamate and GABA. But in autism, that balance is off. There is too much glutamate and not enough GABA. So the body is overly excited and unable to calm itself.
So how are glutamate and GABA made? That's something I find really interesting - they can be made from each other. Glutamate can be made from GABA, and GABA can be made from glutamate.
So what causes the imbalance between the two in autism? The stress response.
The goal of the stress response is to increase alertness and, as the name suggests, be ready to respond to sources of stress.
As I've talked about before, in autism the fight-or-flight response is overactive, and we tend to have more anxiety. This leads to more of a stress response. As part of the stress response, the body produces more neurotensin. Neurotensin causes the body to release more glutamate and less GABA. So it helps us be ready to respond to things even there's nothing really to respond to. This leaves us overly excited and with too much energy, leaving jittery and anxious.
As a side note, if being jittery and anxious sound like a lot like you after you've had too many cups of coffee, it's because caffeine also works by activating the fight-or-flight response, causing a similar result.
So what can be done about this? There's a couple things.
First, you can calm down the anxiety and fight-or-flight response. Taking supplements of vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium can help with this. I talk more about how these three work together to do this in my article about magneisum.
Second, help the body turn the excess glutamate into GABA. You can do this by supplementing vitamin B6, because it helps the enzyme function turns glutamate into GABA. Alternatively, you can also directly supplement GABA, which is available over the counter as a natural supplement. I take GABA when I feel that stressed out, fidgety, limbs-on-fire feeling.
Unfortunately, with autism we get an extra challenge in all of this thanks to MTHFR. MTHFR is a genetic defect that occurs in 70-80% of autistics. It makes the body less efficient in turning some of the B vitamins into their active, useful forms. This includes B6, so our ability to make GABA is hampered.
MTHFR is diagnosed by genetic testing and can be helped by taking the active forms of B6, B12, and folate (vitamin B9). The active forms are also known as their methylated forms, and are often sold under the names methyl B6, methyl B12, and methylfolate.
Speaking from experience, calming down the stress response can have a major impact on the quality of life for those of us with autism. Balancing these improves sleep, anxiety, focus, digestion, ability to socialize, and overall quality of life.
And as I always add when I recommend vitamins or supplements, if you're interesting in trying them, I recommend talking to your doctor about proper dosage.