In the last couple of weeks, you may have seen newspaper reports discussing a new study which has suggested that women who have high levels of folic acid in their blood stream when they give birth have a higher risk of that child going on to develop autism. This would obviously be of great importance to any pregnant woman so I thought I’d do some digging around, look at all the reports I could find and attempt to come to some conclusions of my own, which may help you.
In this piece I will use the terms folate and folic acid interchangably. Basically they are just the same thing but folate is the naturally occurring substance which our bodies produce and which can be found in leafy green vegetables and citrus fruits, whilst folic acid is a synthetic manufactured product.
The Case Against Folic Acid:
The report which was published by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was based on a very limited study of 1,391 children born between 1998 and 2013 at the Boston University Medical Center. Of those children approximately 100 were later identified with an autism-spectrum disorder, and when scientists reviewed the results of blood samples taken at the time of birth they found that 16 of the mothers had very high levels of folic acid and a further 15, very high levels of Vitamin B12. As these blood samples were viewed in retrospect there was no opportunity to identify why the levels of folic acid in these mothers was at such a high level.
Whilst clearly of concern to all those who are pregnant, or attempting to conceive, the points which devalue the report somewhat are:
- there has been no peer review of the data and conclusions drawn
- the sample size of the study was very small
- they are based on one study only and they have not been corroborated by other similar studies
- other research suggests that adequate levels of the same vitamin at conception can significantly reduce the risk of autism
The Case For Folic Acid:
There are numerous studies which show a link between a folate deficiency and an abnormal development of the neural tube causing birth defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord. The two most commonly known are spina bifida and anencephaly. As a result, for many years, on both sides of the Atlantic, doctors have recommended that all women seeking to become pregnant should take folic acid of at least 400 mcg per day which should continue until at least week 12 of the pregnancy. As the spinal cord develops at a time when some women don’t even know they are pregnant, some go so far as to suggest that all women of childbearing age should take the supplement. In cases of previous miscarriage many doctors will recommend a much higher supplementation of folic acid than the 400 mcg guideline.
The evidence to support the use of folic acid in these circumstances are numerous, but certainly in countries where breakfast cereal or in other cases bread, pasta, cornmeal or white rice are fortified/enriched with folic acid, the number of reported cases of neural tube defects has reduced significantly.
Most women don’t consume enough folate in their diet to meet the recommended guidelines when pregnant or trying to conceive. At AVASIA we believe that the evidence to support the benefits of taking a folate supplement are compelling which is why we launched our liquid folate supplement earlier this year to complement our existing prenatal products.
However, we can completely understand that you would never do anything knowingly to harm your baby, so, if you are at all concerned by this study then as I said before – don’t panic – keep taking the folate, but stop the supplementation when you are either twelve weeks pregnant, or, more importantly, whenever your doctor recommends that you stop, as only your trained physician can give you advise which is specific to you and your particular circumstances.