Babies and Children

Autism: do supplements in pregnancy reduce the risk of birth of children with autism spectrum disorders?

Supplementation with folic acid and other vitamins, during the first month of pregnancy, can reduce the likelihood of the birth of children with autism by about 50 percent, precisely in families with a higher risk of this disorder. This result highlights the importance of consuming certain nutrients through proper nutrition and supplementation during the prenatal phase, especially for women who have already had a child with autism.

This is according to research conducted by researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of California (USA), whose findings were published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Autism and maternal nutrition 

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) consist of a range of neurodevelopmental disorders. Affected individuals show deficits in social communication and interaction, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests.

First described in the 1930s, autism represents the primary disorder among ASDs.

Autism is thus, primarily a behavioral syndrome with onset in the first three years of life. The predominantly affected areas, in addition to those related to social interaction, are the ability to communicate ideas and feelings and the ability to establish relationships with others. 

Although it is considered a universal disorder and these rates are consistent across cultures, there is a prevalence among male individuals.

Currently, for a woman, the estimated risk of having a child with autism is about 1.7% in the general population while the risk of having autism among mothers who have already had a child with autism is about 18.7% .

In the early 1970s, the prevalence of diagnosed autism was only 1 in 2500. It is unclear whether this change is attributed to a true increase in the number of cases or is due to increased and improved diagnostic procedures and better awareness of potentially affected children within society.

The causes of autism are still controversial, but it has been suggested that environmental factors may play a role in the dramatic and unexplained increase in the prevalence of ASD. Scientific evidence to this effect is accumulating, including on the role that the uterine environment during gestation.

Thus, several prenatal and perinatal conditions have been reported as possible risk factors for ASD. These risks include chemical exposures in pregnancy, perinatal oxygen insufficiency, premature delivery, and advanced maternal and paternal age.

An important area of research involves the study of the interaction between environmental factors and genetic susceptibility. Epidemiological studies have highlighted the importance of lifestyles, and not just diet, in determining risk factors involving the likelihood of having children with a variety of malformations or diseases.

Prominent among the risk factors are. alcohol consumption and low intake of folate (natural derivatives of vitamin B9). In particular, the intake of these in the peri-conceptional period seems established to protect against the development of ASD in offspring. In addition, there are now several scientific evidences highlighting the link between vitamin D insufficiency and autism (read more here).

Are multi vitamin supplements associated with lower risk of autism?

The recent U.S. study conducted by Rebecca Schmidt, a researcher at the University of California, examined the possible association of Autism Spectrum Disorders and supplementation in pregnancy for women who had previously had children with autism and therefore had an increased risk of having a second child with the same type of disorder.

Data collected among 241 younger siblings of children with autism indicated that the prevalence of autism was 14 percent when mothers who had taken vitamins in the first month of pregnancy, while it rose to 33 percent when mothers had not taken any type of supplements during the same period.

The children of women who had consumed vitamin supplements in the first month of pregnancy not only had a low prevalence of ASD but also showed statistically significantly higher cognitive scores.

The association between prenatal vitamin use and reduced risk of autism, according to the researchers, could be due to one of the many nutrients in the supplements, and as suggested in previous studies, especially Iron and Folic Acid, due to their importance in neurodevelopment.

Although it cannot be said with certainty that any dietary supplement can reduce the risk of autism, the results of this study provide evidence of the role that proper nutrition, and supplementation with prenatal vitamins, play in the course of pregnancy and the birth of healthy children.

In particular, folic acid, found in most marketed prenatal supplements, is an essential nutrient needed to prevent many birth defects.

This is why the U.S. government along with other authoritative bodies on public health such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that women of childbearing age consume folic acid supplements, preferably with other nutrients such as iodine, choline, omega-3 fatty acids and iron, which are also critical for the health and well-being of mother and child, especially in case of deficiencies in the diet.

Some details of the study

The study involved 322 children and their mothers, who had previously had children diagnosed with autism. The women involved in the study were interviewed about the use of vitamin and mineral supplements during pregnancy, while the minor children at high risk for ASD had completed a series of clinical assessments within 6 months of their third birthday.

The final statistically analyzed sample included 241 younger siblings, including 140 males and 101 females, with an average age of 36.5 months. Most mothers (231) had reported taking supplements during pregnancy, but only 87 mothers reported correctly following recommendations to take prenatal vitamins in the 6 months prior to pregnancy.

The prevalence of ASD was found to be 14.1% in children whose mothers took prenatal vitamins in the first month of pregnancy compared with 32.7% in children whose mothers did not take prenatal vitamins during that period.

Vitamins to prevent autism: a link yet to be explored

Results of the study suggerisc that vitamin consumption during the first month of pregnancy may reduce the risk of Autism Spectrum Disorders in siblings of children with ASD, in high-risk families, and if replicatedthese findings could have important public health implications .

However, further investigations are needed to confirm these data, such as examining the contributions of specific nutrients from supplements and food sources and the role of overall dietary quality.

In any case, the findings highlight the value of prenatal supplements as partners in good health and encourage women who are considering having a child to consult their physicians about daily nutrient intake through foods and dietary supplements.

Which folic acid supplement is suitable for those who intend to have a baby?

VITA DHA Materna is a dietary supplement Quatrefolic®, which contains a more assimilable form of folate than commonly available folic acid. This product also contains DHA, an omega-3 essential for proper neurological development of the fetus.

This product is particularly suitable not only in the pre-conception period but also in pregnancy and lactation to ensure the well-being of the mother and baby.

Source: RJ Schmidt, et al. "Association of Maternal Prenatal Vitamin Use With Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder Recurrence in Young Siblings." JAMAPsychiatry, 2019;76(4):391-398

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