When you’re pregnant, you want to do everything you can to keep your little one safe and healthy. You eat the right foods, avoid medications that could affect the baby, exercise regularly, and keep up with all of your prenatal care. You probably also take prenatal vitamins. And that’s terrific! Those are crucial for the healthy development of your baby. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. In this case, building up a high level of certain vitamins can actually significantly increase the risk that your little one will develop an autism spectrum disorder.
Why Do We Need Prenatal Vitamins?
Everything that goes into your growing little one comes from you. That includes a number of vitamins that play a key role in the baby’s development. Calcium, iron, and other vitamins are all important, but folate is the supplement most often associated with pregnancy. Folate helps the development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord and lowers the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida, which can be life-threatening.
It can be difficult to get enough folate in our diets to protect the baby, so we take supplements to help make up the shortfall.
How Much Is Too Much?
For many years, the importance of folate has been emphasized over and over – and that’s absolutely valid. Folate plays a crucial role in the healthy development of a baby and we need supplements to get the right amount of it. However, recent research suggests that having too much folate can actually increase the risk of the child developing an autism spectrum disorder. B12, another common prenatal supplement, was also linked to an increased risk of autism.
A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health followed more than 1,300 mothers for several years, checking their folate levels immediately after delivery and then monitoring the health of their children.
They found that the children of women with very high folate levels – more than four times the recommended amount – were twice as likely to develop an autism spectrum disorder as those born to mothers with average folate levels. Children born to mothers with very high B12 levels are three times as likely to develop an autism spectrum disorder. Children born to mothers with very high levels of both vitamins are at particular risk; they’re more than 17 times as likely to develop autism than children whose mothers had the recommended levels.
The risk of any child developing autism is about 1 in 68, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, the risk levels associated with a higher level of either folate or B12 are still quite low. The risk associated with high levels of both vitamins, on the other hand, is much more concerning – that’s more than a 1 in 4 chance of developing an autism spectrum disorder.
Finding A Balance
On one side, we know we need to take folate and B12 supplements to aid in our little ones’ healthy development. On the other hand, it looks like too much of these supplements can actually be harmful. So what’s the right move?
Unfortunately, the study hasn’t found a reason as to why elevated folate and B12 levels have that effect, nor has it found a reason as to why certain women have extremely high levels in the first place. They speculate that high folate levels may be attributable to eating too many folate-rich foods (like fruits, vegetables, and fortified cereals) or taking too many supplements. It may also be due to differences in the way some women process folate.
For now, there’s no clear indication of where the problem is coming from, how to avoid it, or exactly how much folate and B12 are needed to cause an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder. Until there are clear guidelines, the best thing you can do is to talk to your doctor about your folate levels, your intake of folate-rich foods, what prenatal vitamins might be right for you, and how much of them you should take. As with much else in life, it turns out to be about moderation.