What if it’s acetaminophen, NOT vaccines? Researchers tie America’s most popular painkiller to brain inflammation and autism.
My husband’s arms are sore. His joints are stiff. Just home from pick-up basketball, he heads to the medicine cabinet to find relief from all his aches and pains. Should he, like billions of others, take America’s most popular painkiller, acetaminophen? What about when our daughter is teething, or just after a vaccine? Should we give her Infants’ Tylenol to relieve the pain?
In an article on Vox last month, health reporter Julia Belluz documents myriad problems with acetaminophen, known in Europe as paracetamol/paracetamolo and in America by its brand name, Tylenol. Belluz points out that acetaminophen is the leading cause of liver failure and that randomized studies show that it does not work as well as other methods for knee pain, back pain, or osteoarthritis. Despite her evidence-based explanation of both its toxicity and ineffectiveness, Belluz reaches the nonsensical conclusion that acetaminophen is somehow safe for babies.
Yet we know that toxic substances like alcohol and drugs are much more dangerous for children than adults, and that an infant’s developing brain is particularly sensitive to toxicity.
Laboratory studies show acetaminophen causes cell death. Epidemiological studies link this drug to attention disorders and autism. Taken together, a growing body of scientific literature that Vox completely and irresponsibly ignores shows that pregnant women, infants, and small children should stay far, far away from acetaminophen.
The active ingredient in Tylenol, acetaminophen, is found in more than 600 drugs, including many over-the-counter medications targeted at children (Infants’ Tylenol, Children’s Mucinex, and Little Remedies for Fevers), as well as NyQuil and Alka-Seltzer Plus.
Doctors often recommend dosing children with acetaminophen before they get routine vaccines, and then tell parents to give them more if the baby spikes a fever or has a reaction at the injection site.
The Vox article references a Cochrane report from 13 years ago to show acetaminophen is safe for babies. Cochrane, a non-profit institute aimed at promoting better health through evidence-based medical practice, is considered the gold standard when it comes to unbiased science. Based in the United Kingdom, it does not accept money from pharmaceutical companies. If Cochrane says acetaminophen is safe for children, despite its documented toxicity in adults, then it must be okay.
My doctor was not crazy when he told me to give the baby acetaminophen.
The Cochrane report does not actually say that acetaminophen is safe for children. It concludes that, “Trial evidence that paracetamol has a superior antipyretic effect than placebo is inconclusive,” and “Data on adverse events in these trials were limited.” Since it was published in 2002, several studies have suggested a cause and effect relationship between acetaminophen and brain disorders.
A 2008 study led by Stephen Schultz, who earned his Ph.D. in public health epidemiology at the University of California at San Diego, after working as a dentist for 21 years, found that children given acetaminophen after vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella developed autism eight times as often as children given ibuprofen.
Schultz’s was a small study. But his findings dovetail with a more recent study involving more than 48,000 Norwegians that associates the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy with developmental problems — including attention deficits and aggression — in children at age three. This study, too, points toward the negative effects of acetaminophen on the developing human brain.
In another study of over 64,000 pregnant women in Denmark, the use of acetaminophen in pregnancy was linked to higher risks of severe attention deficit disorders in their children. The longer they used the acetaminophen, the higher the risk of behavioral and brain problems.
Yet another recent study links autism with acetaminophen. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts found that uncircumcised males have five times lower rates of autism than circumcised males. The scientists don’t blame circumcision, which they hypothesize is corollary. Instead they question whether pain relief drugs are to blame, concluding that there is a “need for formal study of the role of paracetamol [acetaminophen] in autism.”
An Epidemic Of Brain Disorders Among America’s Children
In America today, according to the CDC, 1 in every 42 American boys and 1 in every 189 American girls has an autism spectrum disorder.
“When I graduated my residency program it was 1 in 10,000,” says David Traver, M.D., a pediatrician in private practice in Foster City, California, who specializes in treating children with special needs, “that was 1988.”
Though some doctors and researchers insist that the rise in autism is due to changes in diagnostic criteria and increased awareness, a systematic analysis of the numbers by Stanford-trained Cynthia Nevison, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University of Colorado, has shown that changes in diagnostic criteria only account for 20-25 percent of the increase in autism. In other words, the epidemic of autism and other brain disorders among America’s children is real.
“Autism is clearly on the rise,” insists Traver. “It’s here. We can argue whether it’s severe, moderate, or mild. But what are we doing about this? There is a generation of children that are suffering as we intellectually weight lift.”
If Acetaminophen Is Triggering Autism, What’s The Mechanism?
William Shaw, Ph.D., a clinical chemist who previously worked for the CDC, points out that the steep incline in autism, as well as attention deficit disorders and asthma, coincide with the popular use of acetaminophen in the place of aspirin in the United States. But does a cause and effect relationship between acetaminophen and autism make sense from a biological, cellular, or biochemical point of view?
Kevin Becker, Ph.D., the director of a section at the prestigious National Institutes of Health, has described potential molecular mechanisms by which autism might be induced by acetaminophen. Schultz has also described a potential mechanism.
The most detailed explanation of acetaminophen causing autism comes from biochemist William Shaw. He explains that acetaminophen can temporarily inhibit our body’s ability to process toxins, depleting glutathione levels (think of glutathione as nature’s mop), resulting essentially in a toxic wash of the body, including the brain. Simply put: yes, biochemically acetaminophen could cause autism.
The gender disparity in autism has long puzzled scientists: why are so many more boys than girls affected? This study in rats shows, indeed, that there is gender bias at work: male rats are much more susceptible to the toxic effects of acetaminophen than females.
William Parker, Ph.D., an expert on immunology and an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center, has spent over a decade working on immune diseases but has not been involved with any of these studies. When I reached him by phone at his lab at the Department of Surgery, Parker tells me that autism “looks, feels, and smells just like an inflammatory disease of Western culture.”
“It’s all part and parcel of the same issue,” Parker explains. “Inflammation can be caused by a number of factors in modern society, and it leads to disease under the right conditions. With autism, it seems that oxidative stress, a consequence of inflammation, is a necessary factor. A wide range of modern chemicals — especially acetaminophen — can increase oxidative stress.”
Are Brain Disorders Triggered By Vaccines?
There are several potential culprits blamed for causing inflammatory diseases and brain abnormalities, including exposure to pesticides, prenatal ultrasounds, and the current childhood vaccination schedule, which recommends two vaccines during pregnancy, as well as a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease (hepatitis B) in the first few hours of every American newborn’s life.
Hundreds of thousands of parents, like this mom, blame their child’s brain damage on vaccines, noticing that an otherwise normally developing child began regressing into autism after a round of shots.
But Parker, who has no children himself, is most concerned with acetaminophen. He hypothesizes that if we stop using this popular painkiller (as long as we don’t replace it with anything equally as toxic), we will see a sharp decline in autism.
“Based on available data, it looks like eliminating acetaminophen from the equation will be enough to dramatically reduce autism,” Parker insists.
Doctors Weigh In: Avoid Acetaminophen For Babies And Children
Dr. Traver, the specialist in autism, recommends his patients avoid acetaminophen and believes the drug’s connection to autism should be tested further. “The uninformed and indiscriminate administration of acetaminophen has been shown to yield adverse results in certain populations,” Traver explains via Skype. “This needs to be understood and appreciated. We need to keep this in mind.”
At the same time, Traver cautions against laying too much blame on acetaminophen. “It’s not that you never use it or that you always use it. Maybe it’s needed for children with an allergy to ibuprofen. It’s not satanic and Motrin is [not] angelic. I’m not going to say that.”
Robert Sears, M.D., a pediatrician in private practice in Capistrano Beach, California, a founder of the Immunity Education Group, and author of The Autism Book, agrees. Sears says he used to equally recommend acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and fever relief but now primarily recommends ibuprofen.
“A few years ago, I became aware of some potential concerns that acetaminophen may reduce glutathione production,” Sears explains. “Glutathione is a natural antioxidant, which helps the body handle toxins. It would therefore not make much sense to give infants a medication which may reduce the ability to handle some of the chemical ingredients in vaccines.”
Maya Shetreat-Klein, M.D., an integrative pediatric neurologist based in New York City, actively discourages parents from giving acetaminophen to children. “Tylenol is most commonly used for fever, which is a healthy immune response to illness that only rarely should be suppressed,” Shetreat-Klein explains via email. “Tylenol also impairs cellular detoxification… Our bodies particularly need this when we are sick or inflamed, so impairing glutathione is the opposite of what you want to do.”
Pregnant Women Should Avoid Acetaminophen Too
Cindy Schneider, M.D., the medical director for the Center for Autism Research and Education based in Phoenix, Arizona, and a former obstetrician and gynecologist, cautions pregnant women against using acetaminophen. “No medication can be considered completely safe during pregnancy. The fact that a drug is available over the counter does not necessarily mean that it carries fewer risks to a pregnant woman or her baby than those that are only available by prescription,” explains Schneider.
“There appears to be an association between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and an increased incidence of maternal blood clots, pulmonary embolism, preterm labor, and preeclampsia. There is considerable risk to the developing fetus as well. Both animal and human studies have documented an increase in genital birth defects in males exposed to acetaminophen during pregnancy, and defects of the heart, abdominal wall, and face have also been reported.”
Schneider says pregnant women should not be misled by obstetricians or doctors who insist the drug is safe for them or their babies. “The fact that thousands of obstetricians routinely recommend acetaminophen for headaches, backaches, fevers, and other ailments in pregnancy does not guarantee that it can be taken without risk,” she insists. “Most are unaware of the developing science on this subject.”
Duke University’s William Parker believes more studies are urgently needed to determine if there really is a direct link between acetaminophen use and autism.
So while we wait for the science, what can we do?
1. Make sure your hospital does not administer acetaminophen to your baby. It is their drug of choice for babies undergoing a wide range of procedures, from circumcision to vaccination.
2. Don’t be so fast to use drugs to treat your child’s every cough. You’ll be surprised at how well a bowl of old-fashioned chicken soup, rest, and some attention from mom or dad can heal mild illnesses.
3. Seek alternatives to acetaminophen. Our family has had good luck treating headaches with a cold washcloth to the forehead, a rest on the couch with a favorite stuffed bear, and a quarter teaspoon of ground turmeric (a common spice used in Indian cooking and a powerful anti-inflammatory recommended by this M.D.) in a big glass of water or fresh juice.
My husband opted for yoga stretching to help his muscles release the built-up lactic acid. He used an ice pack on the sorer muscles and joints. He also took 500 mg of quercetin, a plant-derived anti-inflammatory, and a half a teaspoon of turmeric in a big glass of filtered water. He felt better right away.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning investigative journalist, a Fulbright grantee, and the author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family (Scribner 2015). She is currently writing a comprehensive guide to children’s health with Paul Thomas, M.D., forthcoming from Ballantine.