Autism affects 1% to 2% of children in the United States. Several factors contribute to this increasing incidence, including nutrition and epigenetic alterations (age-related changes that don’t change one’s DNA coding sequence).
On top of all, genetic factors are estimated to contribute up to 80% of the autism-related risk. That means it may start to appear or develop in late infancy or early childhood, specifically before the age of 3 years.
Folic Acid and Autism: What You Need to Know
In preventing autism early on, several studies recommend maternal folic acid (FA) intake. It plays a crucial role in prenatal and postnatal brain development. Considering this, it may also have a protective role in autism.
Autism, medically referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), is a developmental disability. Apart from solid genetic components, there are multiple causes of autism. Many of them act together, while others may haven’t yet known.
Since differences in the brain generally cause it, autism causes people to act, communicate, interact, think, and learn differently from most people. Repetitive behaviors, impaired social skills, and communication problems generally characterize it. These behavioral signs can be noticed from as early as 1 to 2 years of age.
Early Signs and Symptoms
People with autism often do simple actions, including hand-flapping and rocking, repetitively. They may also dwell in echolalia (the repetition of noises or words) and perseveration (the behavior of repeatedly expressing particular thoughts).
They’re also more comfortable dealing with objects than people. They usually find it hard to use and understand basic non-verbal social cues, including eye contact, facial expressions, and body language.
Consequently, kids can’t properly understand their own and other people’s feelings, resulting in reduced eye contact and social interaction. These behavioral signs are usually diagnosed between ages 2 and 4 (during the development of more advanced communication and social skills), but they can be detected before age 2.
Early Diagnosis and Intervention of Autism Are Critical
These can interfere with their abilities to function in academic, social, and employment settings. Suffering from these difficulties may also result in psychiatric problems, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
For children, autism can make areas of life hard, distressing, and bewildering. It may cause them to suffer from difficult behaviors, negative education experiences, and social isolation.
This is why research suggests that early diagnosis of autism is necessary to ensure access to evidence-based interventions, which may help mitigate levels of disability in children.
Another early intervention, especially for mothers, is prenatal supplementation of folic acid, a synthetic version of the B vitamin folate. It’s particularly crucial for cell growth and neurodevelopment. Deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of congenital irregularities like developmental problems, which may include autism.
How Does Folic Acid Lower the Risk of Autism?
According to a 2022 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there are two ways folic acid can likely reduce autism. First, folic acid can help protect against neural tube defects (NTD), which are brain and spine abnormalities in newborns.
Second, folate pathways contain one-carbon (1C) units, which are the primary sources of methyl groups. DNA and histone methylation reactions need such methyl groups to function effectively. Otherwise, it may affect gene expression and result in neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.
Countries Approving Prenatal Folic Acid Supplementation
Due to the prevalence of NTD-affected pregnancies, mandatory folic acid fortification programs have been implemented in several countries. These include the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, and South Africa. Research shows that these programs help improve blood folate concentrations and reduce NTD-affected pregnancies by 25%–50%.
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Public Health Service urge women of childbearing age to get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid. For the supplement to help, a woman must take it daily, starting at least one month before getting pregnant.
How to Get Folic Acid?
Folic acid is a synthetic folate. In other words, it’s manufactured and often added to fortified foods and supplements. It’s usually found in refined (not whole grain) bread, breakfast cereals, cornmeal, pasta, white rice, and flour.
In the US, these most folic acid-enriched foods contain the recommended daily value (400 mcg) of folic acid in each serving. This has been mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to food manufacturers since 1998. If unsure, check the food’s Nutrition Facts label. Note that it’s sometimes labeled as “folate” instead of folic acid.
Another way to get enough folic acid is by taking vitamins with folic acid. It’s the better option for a low-carbohydrate diet. Another benefit is that most store-brand multivitamins have the recommended daily amount of folic acid and other essential vitamins. What’s more, they’re very affordable and can be bought much cheaper with promotions, such as a Folic Acid Coupon, at most local pharmacies and discount stores.
Folic Acid and Autism: Final Thoughts
Women are encouraged to take folic acid daily, even when they aren’t actively trying to conceive or holding it off. Apart from preventing congenital disabilities and pregnancy complications, folic acid supports brain health, treats mental health conditions, and reduces heart disease risk factors.