The body does not naturally store folic acid; therefore, folic acid is consumed through foods and supplements. Folic acid can be found in green leafy vegetables, fruits, dried beans, peas, nuts, enriched breads and fortified cereals. In women that are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, consuming folic acid is especially important because it can prevent neural tube defects of the spine and brain such as spina bifida, a neural tube defect in which the spinal column of the fetus does not close completely, and anencephaly, a neural tube birth defect in which the brain does not develop.
For many years doctors have recommended that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms (mcg) — which is 0.4 milligrams (mg) — of folic acid a day to decrease the chance of having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect. Most fertility specialists and I always recommend at least 1,000 micrograms — 1 milligram — of folic acid per day to reduce neural tube defects. In fact, all prescription prenatal vitamins now contain 1,000 micrograms. If you take an over-the-counter prenatal vitamin because it costs less, please note that it always has less than 1,000 micrograms of folic acid, so you should take some additional folic acid.
The latest research on folic acid suggests that women who take folic acid supplements before and during their pregnancy are less likely to have children with autism, which is a specific type of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The National Institutes of Health defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as “a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.”
The recent Norwegian study concluded that 85,176 women that started taking folic acid during the most critical developmental period — from four weeks prior to conception through the eighth week of pregnancy — were 40 percent less likely to have a child that developed autism. Women that took folic acid during the critical developmental period were 27 percent less likely to have a child develop any type of ASD. The study was published recently in The Journal of the American Medical Association , and according to the authors, the children in this study were born from 2002 to 2008, and by the end of follow-up on March 31, 2012, the age range was 3 through 10. Autism typically presents itself within the first three years of life. Of the 85,176 children in the study, 114 were diagnosed with autism.