Folate Intake and Autism Risk

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication deficits and repetitive behaviors and often is accompanied by intellectual disability. New findings from the University of California, Davis suggests women who consume the recommended daily dosage of folic acid during the first month of pregnancy may have a reduced risk of having a child with autism. Let's be clear -- folic acid is the artificial form most commonly used in cheap supplements, and folate is natural for the body. Do not take folic acid. Rather, find a supplement that contains folate (not folic acid). 

Take Your Folate Early

The study’s researchers previously found women who took prenatal vitamins around the time of conception had a reduced risk of having a child with autism. These findings are consistent with findings of other studies suggesting improved neurodevelopmental outcomes are associated with folate intake in early pregnancy. The current study sought to determine whether the folate consumed in those supplements was the actual source of the protective effect.

600 micrograms of Folate Everyday

The study found women who consumed 600 micrograms of folate everyday during the first month of pregnancy experienced a reduced risk of having a child with autism spectrum disorder, specifically when the mother and/or her child had a specific genetic variant (homozygous MTHFR 677 C>T), associated with less efficient folate metabolism.

Ideal Form of Folate

L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate (L-5-MTHF) is the active form of folate and ensures more immediate effects on metabolism compared to folic acid, the form of folate commonly used in fortified foods and supplements. Synthetic folic acid is not recommended for anyone, especially for those with certain types of MTHFR issues, due to the inability to convert folic acid to methylfolate. I recommend all women supplement with L-5-MTHF or Folinic acid --- not folic acid.

The mechanism for these findings indicate folic acid might offer protection against problems in embryonic brain development by facilitating DNA methylation reactions that can lead to changes in the way the genetic code is read. An ample supply of methyl donors, such as folic acid, could be especially important in the period around conception, when the DNA methylation road map is set forth. 

Women with any chance of becoming pregnant should consider taking 600 micrograms or greater of the natural form of folate per day. I also love these prenatal vitamins and used them during both of my pregnancies.  

In Health and Happiness, 

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods


R. J. Schmidt, D. J. Tancredi, S. Ozonoff, R. L. Hansen, J. Hartiala, H. Allayee, L. C. Schmidt, F. Tassone, I. Hertz-Picciotto. Maternal periconceptional folic acid intake and risk of autism spectrum disorders and developmental delay in the CHARGE (CHildhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) case-control study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012 Jul;96(1):80-9.

Quadros EV et al. Folate receptor autoantibodies are prevalent in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, their normal siblings and parents. Autism Res. 2018 May;11(5):707-712.

Wiens D and DeSoto C. Is High Folic Acid Intake a Risk Factor for Autism?—A Review. Brain Sci. 2017 Nov; 7(11): 149.

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