Folate has recently made headlines following an article published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in preparation for a presentation on the topic during a conference. What did this study show? That higher-than-normal blood-levels of folate and vitamin B12 in women who have just given birth may be associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in their babies. What’s really the case? Is folate supplementation during the first trimester always advisable?
Folate, or folic acid, is one of the B vitamins, B9 to be precise. The only difference between folate and folic acid is that the latter is the synthetic form (found in supplements or fortified foods) while folate is the vitamin’s natural form, the one found naturally in foods.
B vitamins, including folate, are essential for the function of many of the body’s systems. They are used, for example, to transform carbohydrates into energy, but also contribute to the proper functioning of the nervous system. It’s for this reason that pregnant women, or those wishing to conceive, are advised to take a folate supplement, in order to help the growing baby develop a healthy nervous system.
According to the published summary, researchers observed that when the 1400 mothers followed during the study took pre-natal vitamins, the prevalence of children with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) diminished. However, they also observed that when these mothers had a high blood-level of vitamins B9 (folate) and B12 following childbirth, there was an increase in the incidence of ASD in children.
It’s important to note that these data are obtained from an observational study only. This means we cannot conclude there is a cause and effect relationship between high blood levels of folate after childbirth and incidences of ASD. Several other factors may be at play, but further studies, ideally double-blind, randomized controlled studies, will be needed to draw such conclusions.
Despite this new study, recommendations for pregnant women and those wishing to conceive remain unchanged. Tens, even hundreds of studies have proven that folate supplementation, as much in cereal products as vitamin supplementation during pregnancy, can prevent neural tube defects in newborn babies. Neural tube anomalies are often permanent in children, and can even be fatal, but they are easily avoidable with supplementation.
Up until now it was understood that low folate levels can have devastating effects on the baby’s health, now we may also need to take into account the effects of high levels of folate. Further studies will need to take place to enable a consensus on the best way to proceed, if only to closely monitor the blood levels of B vitamins during pregnancy, or to establish stricter dosage limits on supplements. One thing is for sure, the solution isn’t to stop supplementing. We recommend that you continue taking the supplements recommended by your medical doctor.