Taking folate during pregnancy may (or may not) cause autism. Confused?

When you are pregnant you get bombarded with information. List and rules. Things you have to avoid at all costs. Foods to ban. Places you can’t go and nutrients you need to grow a healthy baby.

So when you are faced with a headline that tells you one of the rules you had been following could actually be harming your baby it is hard not to panic.

This exact situation came about last week when blaring from everywhere you turned on Facebook and the web was the very frightening headline: “Too much folate in pregnant women increases risk for autism, study suggests.”

Folate. The very vitamin you are urged by your doctor to take. The very thing that you have been taking religiously every single day (except whose few weeks you were vomiting so much you couldn’t keep it down).

Folate the nutrient you were convinced was preventing neural development defects in your unborn baby.

Folate is harming my baby?

The study found that children at greatest risk of autism were those born to the mothers who had high levels of both folate and vitamin B12.Via IStock.

The study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said that there could be serious risks in having folate.

“The researchers found that if a new mother has a very high level of folate right after giving birth -- more than four times what is considered adequate -- the risk that her child will develop an autism spectrum disorder doubles” the study said.

Which led to headlines like this one: “Too Much Folate during Pregnancy May Produce Autistic Infants” and pregnant women right around the world wondering whether these tiny little pills (or massive hard to swallow ones depending on what brand you took) were something to continue.

Post continues after video...

The study – written in a small abstract and not yet peer reviewed or published in a journal - was presented at an autism research meeting.

It is important to note that it did not find a causal link between taking folic acid and autism. What the study actually found was pretty specific writes Time.


The researchers took blood tests of close to 1,400 mothers between one to three days after they gave birth and found that about 10% of the mothers had very high levels of folate, beyond recommended amounts, and that these women were also more likely to have a baby that would later be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Live Science says that the study found that children at greatest risk of autism were those born to the mothers who had high levels of both folate and vitamin B12.

In fact these children were about 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than the kids born to women who had normal levels of both nutrients.

The study says that what is unclear is the exact biological mechanism that may underlie the link. One theory, THEORY, is that mothers with high levels of these two nutrients in their blood may metabolise these vitamins differently from other women. They may have elevated levels of folate and B12 because they process these B vitamins differently, or because they took in too much of these nutrients, or both.

In a nutshell what the study said was that too much folate might be harmful but that in no way should women stop taking folate supplements, as the right amount of folate was extremely important.

"Adequate supplementation is protective: That's still the story with folic acid. We have long known that a folate deficiency in pregnant mothers is detrimental to her child's development," said M. Daniele Fallin, one of the study's senior authors and director of Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

"But what this tells us is that excessive amounts may also cause harm. We must aim for optimal levels of this important nutrient."

Too much folate might be harmful but in no way should women stop taking folate supplements. Via IStock.

If this doesn’t convince you to keep taking your folate maybe this will. A recent study in Ireland found that the number and type of foods fortified with folic acid, as well as the amount added, had fallen in recent years.

Correlating with that was the incident rate of neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, rose from 0.92 per 1,000 births in 2009 to 1.17 per 1,000 in 2011.

“It appears that the incidence of neural tube defects may be increasing again,” the Food Safety Authority of Ireland warned in a report highlighting the need for women of childbearing age to have higher intakes of folic acid.

So talk to your doctor. Take the amount of folate they recommend and stop reading scary headlines.

00:00 / ???