A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that women who consume adequate amounts of folic acid during pregnancy have a reduced chance of bearing a child with autism.
Folic acid, also called vitamin B9, can be found in foods like broccoli and beans and is often recommended for pregnant women to prevent birth defects.
The current research, conducted at the University of California, studied 837 pregnant women over a six-year period, during which time their children were checked for behavioral problems. At the end of the study, the team concluded that the intake of 600 micrograms of folic acid daily during the first months of pregnancy —through supplements and/or foods rich in the nutrient —can reduce by 38% the chances of a woman having a child with autism.
The researchers also found that mothers of children with normal development; that is, children without symptoms of autism or developmental delay, were those who consumed more folic acid during the first months of pregnancy. They found that the more folic acid a pregnant woman consumed, the lower the risk of their child manifesting a developmental disorder.
According to the study, folic acid protects the fetus from problems in brain formation which can result from a “mis-reading” of the DNA genetic material of the developing brain. Vitamin supplements are recommended for pregnant women — at least in the U.S. and Brazil — to help ensure a healthy maturation of their fetuses.
For Dr. Rebecca Schmidt, author of the study, the current findings are consistent with other research that has shown the protective effect of folic acid in relation to the neurological development of the fetus. Moreover, she states the findings support a daily intake of at least 600 micrograms of folic acid for women in the child-bearing years (U.S. recommendation).
In Brazil, the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) recommends that adults ingest 240 micrograms of folic acid a day and pregnant women, 355 micrograms. A soup ladle sized serving of black beans, for example, contains 119 micrograms of the vitamin. Since 2004, ANVISA has mandated folic acid supplementation in wheat and corn flour and its byproducts to reduce birth defects.
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