Why you shouldn’t stop taking folic acid despite the headlines

Scientists urge caution against "alarmist" claims of folic acid and autism link

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In case you’ve read the headlines this week reporting on new research that claims a link between folic acid and autism – panic not. We’ve got the facts behind the scaremongering headlines.

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Where’s the story come from?

The story has come about following research at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University claiming to have found:

  • that if a mother had 4 times the ‘adequate’ level of folate in her system just after giving birth, then the risk the child would develop an autism spectrum disorder doubled
  •  that new mums with very high levels of vitamin B12 (which works with the body to process folate) could triple the risk of autism or a similar condition.

However, even the authors of the report stressed they were not suggesting that it was a bad idea to take folic acid supplements.

Lead author, Ramkripa Raghavan, said: “This research suggests that this could be the case of too much of a good thing. We tell women to be sure to get folate early in pregnancy. What we need to figure out now is whether there should be additional recommendations about just what an optimal dose is throughout pregnancy.”

And Dr Daniele Fallin, director of the Bloomberg School’s Wendy Klag Centre for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, said: “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.

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

Should I be taking folic acid?

Yes. The guidelines on taking folic acid remain the same. Unless you have been specifically advised otherwise, it should be taken by women trying to conceive up until the 12th week of pregnancy.

The NHS website says: “The Department of Health recommends that women should take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid while they are trying to conceive, and should continue taking this dose for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when the baby’s spine is developing. However, it is safe to continue taking folic acid supplements after 12 weeks.”

And the Family Planning Association states it is “essential for the healthy development of a baby” and says that “if you’re planning a pregnancy or there’s a chance that you might get pregnant you should make sure you’re getting enough folic acid supplements”.

What are other professionals saying?

Lots of other scientists and experts have been very quick to point out that this study has NOT been fully peer-reviewed, which is a really important part of any scientific research.  

In fact, the findings haven’t even been properly presented yet, and won’t be until the International Meeting for Autism Research in Baltimore. So far, the story is hooked only on details that were issued in a press release.

What are UK boffins saying?

The words ‘alarmist’ and ‘irresponsible’ have been used by two of our leading experts. 

Jonathan Green, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Manchester University, said: “There are many epidemiologically based associations made of this sort – increasingly so in autism at the moment.”

He added that “without details of the analysis, or any theory of action this looks like low-grade evidence and, if not peer-reviewed, seems irresponsible”.

While Chris Jarrold, professor of cognitive development at Bristol University, said that autism diagnosis itself was “somewhat subjective”, and that the research could be “unduly alarmist, not least because this is a conference presentation that has yet to be fully peer-reviewed”.

“From the limited evidence provided one needs to be very careful at this stage about giving it too much weight. The researchers rightly note that their ‘findings warrant additional investigation,” he said.

“The sample appears to be unusual in that the incidence of autism is surprisingly high, with 107 of 1,391 individuals receiving a diagnosis. This 7.7 per cent rate is noticeably higher than the one in 68 baseline incidence that the press release quotes (1.5 per cent). 

“Unless folate and B12 levels are unusually high in this whole sample of mothers, this discrepancy needs explaining.”

I’m still worried. What should I do?

As with any aspect of your pregnancy, if you have any concerns or fears at all, speak to your GP or your midwife – no niggle is too small, or any fear too silly.

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