PhotoFor women looking to become pregnant, there are many nutrients that need to be taken in order to promote the healthy growth of their future baby. One such nutrient, called folate, has long been considered a staple for proper development, but researchers are now questioning whether too much of it may be a bad thing.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a study and found that women who had folate levels that were too high right after birth were much more likely to bear children who would later develop an autism disorder. These findings suggest that expecting mothers need to walk a line between having enough folate for development, but not having too much to the point that it may be harmful.

“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,” said Dr. M. Daniele Fallin, one of the senior authors of the study.

Increased chance of autism

For the purposes of the study, researchers examined nearly 1,400 mother-child pairs from the Boston Birth Cohort between 1998 and 2013. Researchers measured each mother’s blood folate level within three days after the time of birth, after which each mother and child was tracked over the course of several years.

The researchers found that mothers who had very high folate levels right after giving birth (more than four times the adequate level) had double the risk of bearing a child that would later develop an autism spectrum disorder; women who had high levels of vitamin B12, another important nutrient for development, had triple the risk of having a child that would develop an autism spectrum disorder.

If levels of folate and vitamin B12 were both high right after birth, the risk that the child would develop an autism spectrum disorder was 17.6 times higher.

Diet and genetics

The researchers note that there could be many possible explanations for the high levels of folate or vitamin B12. Many of the mothers who participated in the study reported that they were taking multivitamins throughout their pregnancy, many of which contain folic acid and vitamin B12.

Other explanations for the high levels could be tied back to eating habits or genetic predispositions. Many fruits and vegetables naturally contain folic acid, and other products like cereal, bread, rice, and pasta are fortified with it. Consuming too many of these foods during pregnancy could result in high levels, especially if an individual is predisposed to absorbing more of the nutrient or metabolizing it more slowly.

Too much of a good thing

The researchers want to stress that pregnant women should not actively avoid consuming food products or supplements containing folate or vitamin B12.

“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,” said study lead author Ramkripa Raghavan.

The findings of this research are due to be presented on May 13 at the 2016 International Meeting for Autism Research in Baltimore, Maryland.

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