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Folic Acid May Reduce Risk of Autism


a blog by Laurence A. Jacobs, M.D., Fertility Centers of Illinois, March 18, 2013

Can folic acid reduce the risk of more than neural tube defects? That’s what recent research suggests —women who take folic acid supplements before and during their pregnancy are less likely to have children with autism.

The National Institutes of Health defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as “a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.” Autism is a specific type of disorder on that spectrum.

What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a synthetic form of vitamin B, and its main function is making and maintaining cells. Folic acid helps the cells to rapidly divide and grow, and produces healthy new red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body.

Where Do You Get Folic Acid?

Unfortunately, the body does not naturally store folic acid; so you must consume the nutrient through foods and supplements. Foods that have folic acid include green leafy vegetables, fruits, dried beans, peas, nuts, enriched breads and fortified cereals. Or, you can take a supplement.

Physicians for many years have recommend that all women of childbearing age consume at least 400 micrograms (mcg) — which is 0.4 milligrams (mg) — of folic acid a day.

Why Is Folic Acid Important for Pregnant Women?

In women that are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, consuming folic acid is especially important because it can prevent neural tube defects of the spine and brain. Examples of these neural tube defects are spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal column of the fetus does not close completely, and anencephaly, a birth defect in which the brain does not develop.

While physicians recommend at least 400 micrograms to reduce the risk of neural tube defects, most fertility specialists and I always recommend at least 1,000 micrograms — 1 milligram — of folic acid per day. All prescription prenatal vitamins now contain 1,000 micrograms. If you choose to take an over-the-counter prenatal vitamin because it costs less, please note that it always has less than 1,000 micrograms of folic acid, so you should take some additional folic acid.

What Does Folic Acid Have to Do with Autism?

A recent Norwegian study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 85,176 women who started taking folic acid from four weeks prior to conception through the eighth week of pregnancy (a critical development period) were 40 percent less likely to have a child that developed autism and 27 percent less likely to have a child develop any type of ASD.

What Is the Takeaway Message?

If you are trying to conceive or preparing to undergo fertility treatment, getting enough folic acid is critical. Take 1,000 micrograms daily, and if you have any questions, talk to your doctor.


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