Prenatal Pesticide Exposure May Increase Autism Risk—But Folic Acid Can Help

Folic acid is incredibly beneficial for pregnant women—and recent research indicates one more way the stuff may benefit your baby.

Woman with folic acid medicine
Photo: Yuriy Maksymiv/Shutterstock

We all know how important folic acid is for pregnant women—prenatal vitamins are chock full of the stuff, and folic acid's ability to ward off birth defects is well-documented. Because of this, women are encouraged to start popping prenatal vitamins before they start trying to conceive.

And now, research has revealed yet another benefit of folic acid consumption around the window of conception.

Researchers from UC Davis observed nearly 300 children who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) alongside 220 children who had no evidence of such disorder. The team interviewed their mothers about prenatal pesticide exposure and their folic acid and vitamin B consumption in the three months before and after conception as well. According to their findings, mothers who took the amount of folic acid found in most prenatal vitamins were less likely to have children with ASD, even if they'd experienced household pesticide exposure (which had been linked to increased autism risk).

While pregnant women should do what they can do to avoid exposure to pesticides, sometimes it's inevitable. But, if these findings (which appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives) are any indication, folic acid consumption around the time of conception may bring down the risks.

Researchers will likely study this link in greater detail, as much of their data was based on self-reported figures and relied on mothers' memories (which may not have been completely accurate).

"We found that if the mom wastaking folic acid during the window around conception, the risk associated with pesticides seemed to be attenuated," said study author Rebecca J. Schmidt in a release for this news. "Mothers should try to avoid pesticides. But if they live near agriculture, where pesticides can blow in, this might be a way to counter those effects....Folic acid intake below the median and exposure to pesticides was associated with higher risk of autism than either low intake or exposure alone. The mothers who had the highest risk were the ones who were exposed to pesticides regularly."

Of course, folic acid consumption can't completely eliminate autism risk—but since this is just one of many benefits associated with it, it definitely makes sense to keep popping that prenatal—even if you haven't seen that positive pregnancy test yet.

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