About the study
New research coming out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests there could be a higher risk of autism in children whose mothers get too much folic acid during pregnancy.
In this ongoing study, researchers looked at data from 1,391 mothers and their babies in the Boston Birth Cohort, which are primarily from a low-income and minority population. Both mothers and their babies were followed from the time of birth (which occurred between 1998 to 2013), and for several years after. The mother’s blood levels of folate were checked once within the first few days of delivery. Many of the women in the study reported having taken multivitamins, which include the nutrients folic acid and vitamin B12, throughout the duration of their pregnancy.
What did the study find?
The researchers found that if a new mother has a very high level of folate in their blood (greater than four times what is considered normal) within the first few days after giving birth, the risk that her child will develop an autism spectrum disorder doubles. Very high blood levels of vitamin B12 in new mothers were shown to triple the risk that her child will develop an autism spectrum disorder. Having extremely high blood levels of both folate and vitamin B12 increased the risk that a child develops an autism spectrum disorder by 17.6 times.
What does this mean to me?
Folate is one of the eight B vitamins found naturally in a wide variety of foods. Folic acid is the synthetic version of this vitamin, which is used to fortify cereals and breads in North America, and it is also the form found in vitamin supplements.
During pregnancy, women are typically advised to supplement with folic acid (usually in the form of a prenatal multivitamin), as a folic acid deficiency can put the fetus at a much greater risk of being born with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida, which affects the brain and spinal cord. However, this study does show that only in excessive amounts could folic acid potentially cause harm. It also highlights the need for more research to determine what the optimal levels of folate and vitamin B12 during pregnancy are, and what the appropriate dose to take in supplement form throughout a pregnancy is.
The results of this study do not change the fact that folic acid is still critical to a fetus’ spinal and brain development. This study further shows the importance of smart supplementation, which ensures that you always speak to your healthcare practitioner prior to taking any natural supplement and always read and follow the label directions. This will help ensure that you stay within safe levels, and reduce the risk of over-consuming any nutrient.
For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, it’s important to speak to your healthcare practitioner to determine the appropriate level of folic acid and vitamin B12 to supplement with, and to always follow the directions on the product label.