Epsom Salts – Old Wives Tale or Medical Fact?

(First in a series of three wives tales)

My mother taught me about Epsom salts for aches and pains. She would swear by it and I would ignore it; chalking it up to another old wives tale she told me. But then autism entered our lives and suddenly I was reading about the magic of Epsom salt baths. Could my mom actually have been right about this? Well, yes.

The reason I learned about Epsom salt baths for my son with autism was due to the research I was conducting on some of his physical and behavioral symptoms he displayed. It turned out that he has trouble with his PST (phenol-sulfotransferase) system and the processing of phenols and salicylates.

Symptoms of PST/sulfate deficiency (problems with phenols/salicylates) are reddened ears, hyperactivity, inappropriate laughter, night sweats, black under eyes, excessive thirst, eczema, facial flushing, trouble falling to sleep, disturbed sleep and odorous bed-clothes.  Your child doesn’t have to exhibit all of these symptoms in order to have trouble with phenols.  My son gets most of these symptoms and he not only becomes very hyper, but he starts to stim and he has trouble with emotion regulation.

Ready for the medical science behind this? One very important sulfotransferase enzyme is the one that attaches sulfate to phenol compounds, called phenol-sulfotransferase (PST). The PST is under active in the majority of autistic children. Without the PST enzyme working properly, the liver will have trouble eliminating the phenols in food.  PST is a Phase 2 liver enzyme that detoxifies leftover hormones and a wide variety of toxic molecules, such as phenols and amines that are produced in the body (and even in the gut by bacteria, yeast, and other fungi) as well as food dyes and chemicals.

OK, so what are phenols?  Phenols are present in food dyes, artificial flavors, preservatives and in highly colored fruits and vegetables, in bioflavonoids, and in carotenoids (carotene, lutein, lycopene, xanthophylls, and zeaxanthin).  Almost all foods have phenols, but in varying amounts. Salicylates are a subgroup of phenols. Salicylate is a group of chemicals related to aspirin. There are several kinds of salicylate, which plants make as a natural pesticide to protect themselves.  Foods high in natural salicylates are tomatoes, apples, peanuts, bananas, oranges, cocoa (chocolate), red grapes, coffee, all berries, peppers (bell & chili) to name a few.  My son can’t tolerate too many phenols/salicylates. He reacts to tomatoes (yes, ketchup and pasta sauce!), chocolate, red grapes, and artificial colors/flavors.

Most children on the autism spectrum are very low in sulfate due to a deficiency in this PST pathway.  Since sulfur intake is low, and its oxidation is slow in many autistic children, phenols and salicylates that requires or uses up sulfate ions during its metabolism, will make the situation worse.  Tylenol is phenolic and one or two minutes after a dose of  Tylenol, the entire supply of sulfate in the liver is gone!

So, what’s a mother to do? Well, listen to their mother. Epsom salt baths. One way to enhance detoxification is to supply more sulfate.  This increases the amount of toxins processed out. Sulfate ions may not be absorbed well from the gut, so simply giving more sulfur directly by swallowing supplements may not produce satisfactory results.  This may be because their body is unable to convert the sulfur to the needed sulfate form. Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate which is readily available to support the PST pathway. You can purchase Epsom salts at Costco, Wal-Mart or your local grocery and health food stores. Be sure to purchase U.S.P. (United States pharmaceutical grade).

When given an Epsom salt bath, the magnesium and sulfate in the salts are absorbed into the body through the skin. Because the sulfur is already in the sulfate form, it does not need to be converted like other forms of sulfur do. Sulfate is thought to circulate in the body up to about nine hours. Any Epsom salts left on the skin may continue to be absorbed as long as it is still on the skin, offering continuous ‘timed-released’ input into the bloodstream.

I put 1.5 to 2 cups of Epsom salts in hot bath water to dissolve and then add the cold water to balance the temperature. My son will soak for about 15 minutes before I use natural soaps or shampoos. Others add baking soda and lavender oil to enhance the relaxation effects.  I give my son an Epsom salt bath at least 5 nights a week, others do less.  It really soothes and calms him for bedtime.

I’ve finally decided to take heed to my mother’s old wives tales she’s been sharing with me for the past 40 years. There is something to be said about listening to your mother.  But perhaps we should refer to them as “old wise tales” from now on.

Read the second post in the series of “Old Wives Tales” here:  http://healingautismandadhd.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/a-tablespoon-of-apple-cider-vinegar-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away/

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15 Responses

  1. Great article Joanne. I know we, as a family, used Epsom Salts in bath water quite often for aches and pains. Especially all us tall boys to help sooth “Growing Pains”. I am glad to hear it has medicinal qualities and was not just another great idea like asbestos, or lead paint, or better colored food.

  2. when you first started the epsom salt baths did you notice any side effects with your son? any hyperactivity? I’m not sure if its coincidental or not but last night was the first time I’ve ever given him an epsom salt bath. He was agitated a little when we were done (he doesn’t do transitions anyway). But this morning he seems a bit wired and hyper. So just wondering if anyone else had gotten similar responses.

    • I don’t get that response, but have heard others getting it. It could be a die-off reaction since Epsom salts help with detox. How much did you start out with? I recommend starting with only a 1/4 cup and working up slowly from there to the 2 cups after 2 wks. Others add baking soda (one without aluminum), and lavender oil to help with relaxation. Or, he could just not tolerate it well. Might want to try again and see if it was the ES or maybe something else.

  3. How are the sulfates absorbed through the skin exactly? Are blood sulfate levels elevated after baths? Are their any solid scientific studies that have been done to demonstrate the efficacy of your statements above?

  4. Hi, I really like the detailed information you posted about Epsom Salts and how important they are. I have been using them in my son’s bath for years and I really think they have made a difference. He has Autism and is 9. I add Himalayan Pink Salt for it’s high mineral content and essential oils including Lavender for calming. I have read where some Moms make a cream using the Epsom Salts to rub into their child’s skin during the day because they think it is so beneficial. I too, am trying to get the word out about Epsom Salts as a therapy for Austism. Thank you for all the great info on your site!

  5. [...] Here goes my best explanation…. We know that our sweet Caroline is very low in sulfate (this is true for many children on the spectrum).  Her little body just doesn’t hold onto it the way it should.  A very important enzyme (PST) used by the liver to remove toxic phenols from our body needs sulfate molecules to attach to the phenolic compounds.  If your liver runs low on sulfate, it can not remove the phenols from the bloodstream.  If phenols build-up, they can can cause impulsiveness, hyperactivity, irritability, inappropriate laughter, night sweats, dark circles under the eyes, excessive thirst, eczema, facial flushing, trouble falling to sleep, disturbed sleep, and odorous bed-clothes.  With our girl, we avoid artificial food coloring and some fruits with naturally occurring phenols.  We know she has too many phenols in her system when she is irritable, impulsive, and gets black circles under her eyes.  Click here for More info about Epsom salt baths.    [...]

  6. [...] Here goes my best explanation…. We know that our sweet Caroline is very low in sulfate (this is true for many children on the spectrum).  Her little body just doesn’t hold onto it the way it should.  A very important enzyme (PST) used by the liver to remove toxic phenols from our body needs sulfate molecules to attach to the phenolic compounds.  If your liver runs low on sulfate, it can not remove the phenols from the bloodstream.  If phenols build-up, they can can cause impulsiveness, hyperactivity, irritability, inappropriate laughter, night sweats, dark circles under the eyes, excessive thirst, eczema, facial flushing, trouble falling to sleep, disturbed sleep, and odorous bed-clothes.  With our girl, we avoid artificial food coloring and some fruits with naturally occurring phenols.  We know she has too many phenols in her system when she is irritable, impulsive, and gets black circles under her eyes.  Click here for More info about Epsom salt baths.    [...]

  7. [...] the first in the series of “Old Wives Tales” here:  http://healingautismandadhd.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/epsom-salts-old-wives-tale-or-medical-fact/ Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailMorePrintRedditDiggStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  8. I am interested in starting Epsom Salts for my son (2 yrs old). He tends to drink his bath water. I know its gross, but he is so fast , I cannot stop him sometimes! Would i t be dangerous to swallow the water with EpsomSalt in it? What about essential oils?

    • Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate and not harmful if he drinks it. But drinking it will cause loose stools and/or diarrhea. Essential oils may not be advisable if you can’t prevent him drinking it. Perhaps eliminate any bath toys that can serve as a cup/drinking vessel? I know their hands can do the same though.

  9. my daughter is 2 and half year old.doctor said she has some autistic features.now i have started her therapy classes just before 15 days.Therapist said use Epsom salt for your baby’s bath upto 15 days once in a day. But i am confused is epsom salt will control my baby’s hyperactivity problem. Can i use this epsom salt for a long period to get a good result. If yes how much quantity i should use and for how many days i should continue.

    • Epsom Salts are magnesium sulfate and will help with calming your child as well as detoxification. I have been giving my son these baths several times a week for years. Start with 1/2 cup to 1 cup of salts and build up to 2 cups in about two weeks.

    • Hello Sipra,
      I agree with healingautismandadhd’s comments to your post. I have used Epsom salts with my son since he was around 5 years of age. He is now 11 and we have used them in his bath routinely, approximately every other day. I make a special formula using several essential oils to help with calming and relaxing. Since your daughter is only 18 months old, that would need to wait until you are sure she would not ingest the water. The detoxifying effects that Epsom salt and Himalayan Pink Salt have is real and I think my son has definitely benefited from us putting this in his bath over the years. I only wish I had known about it when he was 18 months old, that was when he started the signs of ASD.

  10. Hi, I’m a mother of two sons, one with ASD&ADHD in Australia. I just found your website through a friend of mine who also has a child with ASD and who believes epsom salts can help autism.

    As a natural therapist, I have been understanding that the bath with epsom salt is good for everyone to increase the blood circulation and body temperature. Then people get sweat and urine a lot, which means detox.

    I had the same question as Chris above, and I read the linked study… I have to say the study is not realistic. How can children go into 50-55Celcious bath? Even adults, it is very very very hard to SOAK the body in such a hot water. I can’t do that even 2 seconds. The skin will get very red and it must give second degree burn if soaked the body for 12 minutes. Also the study doesn’t have references and it can’t be called academic…

    I believe not just the amount of epsom salt but also the water temperature relate to the effect. Absorbing from the skin may take very long time say 1 months or more to show the visible effect of epsom salt bath on children with ASD or ADHD.

    Regarding PST, I understand if your sulphate deficiency means “heparan” sulphate deficiency… Please find the link. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23318464
    What do you think?

    Sorry for such a long comment and thank you for reading through.

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