Folic acid has been highly recommended for both pregnant women and women trying to conceive for quite some time. The risks of taking the supplement are nil, but the benefits are many. Previous studies have indicated that an increased consumption of folic acid prior to pregnancy and during early pregnancy can prevent up to 70% of all neural tube defects and improper formation of the embryonic brain and spinal cord. Now researchers say there is yet another benefit.
Autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects 1 in 88 children, is characterized by impairments in communication, social interaction, intellectual disability and repetitive behaviors. It is a life-long condition that can be improved with intervention, but it never goes away. Even despite all the research into autism, very little is still known – no one really knows why it happens, but researchers are constantly finding links to autism and ways to prevent it. Taking folic acid is now considered a preventative measure, thanks to a recent study.
Conducted by researchers at UC Davis MND Institute, the study was an add-on to previous studies in which researchers found that women who took prenatal vitamins around the time of conception were less likely to give birth to a child with autism than women who had waited to take prenatal vitamins. This new study discovered that women who took their recommended dosage of folic acid (a minimum of 600mcg) during the first month of pregnancy were less likely to have a child with autism, particularly if the mother or her child was found to have a specific genetic variant that is associated with a less effective folate metabolism (MTHFR 677 C.T).
“This research is congruent with the findings of earlier studies that suggest that improved neurodevelopmental outcomes are associated with folic acid intake in early pregnancy,” said lead author of the study and assistant professor of public health sciences in the UC Davis School of Medicine, Rebecca J. Schmidt. “It further supports recommendations that women with any chance of becoming pregnant should consider consuming folic acid at levels of 600 micrograms or greater per day.”
For the study, researchers gathered and examined data on 835 Northern California women with children between the ages of 2 and 5. Some of the children had autism, others developmental delays, and others, typical development. All of them started their participation prior to pregnancy and all joined the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment Study between 2003 and 2009.
During the initial part of the study, researchers evaluated how much folic acid each woman consumed three months prior to pregnancy and again during pregnancy. Those that gave birth to children with autism were found to have reported less folic acid intake during the first trimester than women with typically developing children. Additionally, participants were less likely to give birth to an autistic child if they increased their folic acid intake.
Women with children who had developmental delays were also found to have lower folic acid intake. However, their deficiency was found to be during the three months prior to pregnancy, rather than the first three months of pregnancy.
Overall, researchers found that 69% of mothers with typically developing children met the recommended daily guidelines, and their average folic acid intake was 779mcgs per day. Only 54% of mothers with autistic children met the guidelines, and their average intake was 665mcgs per day.
Researchers on the study say that the increased intake of folic acid helps protect against brain development problems during the early embryotic stage. This happens because the folic acid facilitates DNA methylation reactions that can actually change the way a genetic code is read. Because of this, they say that an adequate intake of certain methyl donors, like folic acid, are likely especially important during conception.
“What’s reassuring here is knowing that, by taking specific action in terms of their intake of folic acid from food or supplements, women can reduce the risk of autism spectrum disorder in their future children,” Irva Hertz-Picciotto, chief of the division of environmental and occupational health in the Department of Public Health Sciences and MIND Institute researcher stated.
Folic acid can be taken through supplements, but it can also be found in foods. Its natural sources are egg yolks, beans, peas, lentils, spinach, asparagus, lettuce, turnip greens, liver, kidney and baker’s yeast. It can be found in smaller concentrations in certain fruits and vegetables, like cantaloupe, honeydew, grapefruit, brussel sprouts, broccoli, bananas, romaine lettuce, raspberries, and strawberries. In many countries, folic acid is even added to many grain products.
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