Does Folic Acid During Pregnancy Reduce Autism Risk From Pesticide Exposure?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in folic acid and pregnancy

The Role Of Optimal Nutrition In Prenatal Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

autismThere is no question autism rates are skyrocketing. The prevalence of autism in young children has increased 2-fold since 2000, 4-fold since 1996, and as much as 13-fold since 1980. A large part of that increase is simply due to changes in the diagnostic criteria for autism, but there are probably biological and environmental factors involved as well.

The increase in autism has been blamed on vaccinations, cell phones, and GMO foods, but those theories have largely been debunked (I’m not sure anyone really believed that cell phone use by the parents could cause autism in their children).

Does folic acid during pregnancy reduce autism risk from pesticide exposure?

The recent claim that glyphosate exposure may cause autism has proven to be controversial, but that is just the “tip of the iceberg.”  Numerous recent studies have suggested that pesticide exposure during conception and pregnancy may increase the risk of autism in the children. This is at least a plausible hypothesis. Most pesticides are neurotoxins, and animal studies have shown that pesticide exposure during conception and pregnancy can affect neurological development in the offspring.

This is a “bad news – good news” situation. The bad news is we live in an increasingly polluted world and some exposure to pesticides is inevitable. We can reduce pesticide exposure in the food we eat by choosing organic, but even organically-grown produce contains some pesticides . Even worse, a recent study found 217 neurotoxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.

The good news is optimal nutrition during conception and pregnancy may reduce the risk of autism. In a previous study (R.J. Schmidt et al, Epidemiology, 22: 476-485, 2011 q), the authors showed that for mothers with a MTHFR gene defect, a prenatal supplement providing 400 ug of folic acid per day was associated with a 4.5-fold decreased risk of giving birth to a child with autism. That lead them to ask whether optimum folic acid status could reduce the effect of pesticides on autism risk.

[Note: I am not sharing this study with you because it is definitive. It is not. Further studies will be required to confirm these results. I am sharing it with you because, if true, it has some important implications that are not usually discussed in the scientific or popular literature.]

How Was The Study Designed?

folic acid during pregnancyThis study (R.J. Schmidt et al, Environmental Health Perspectives, doi: 10.1289/EHP604) is what is known as a case control study. The mothers in the study were part of the Childhood Autism Risks From Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. The children in the study were clinically confirmed to have ASD (autism spectrum disorders). The investigators chose 296 families from the CHARGE group for whom maternal folic acid intake and pesticide exposures were known. They compared them to 220 controls that did not have ASD and were matched by age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

They assessed household pesticide exposure (pet flea & tick products, indoor pesticides, and outdoor sprays or foggers) through telephone interviews. They also used telephone interviews to estimate total folic acid intake from multivitamins, prenatal vitamins and vitamin fortified foods. They assessed agricultural pesticide exposure based on proximity to areas of heavy agricultural pesticide use.

They considered the autism risk of women who were taking 800 ug of folic acid and had no known exposure to pesticides as the baseline. Anything below 800 ug was consider low folic acid intake. Basically, they were looking at the effects of low folic acid intake and pesticide exposure on autism risk.

 

Does Folic Acid During Pregnancy Reduce Autism Risk From Pesticide Exposure?

folic acid during pregnancy during pesticide exposureFor women with low folic acid intake during conception and early pregnancy, pesticide exposure significantly increased autism risk. The breakdown was as follows;

  • Exposure to any indoor pesticides increased autism risk 2.5-fold.
  • Exposure to pet flea & tick pesticides increased autism risk 3.9-fold.
  • Exposure to indoor pesticide sprays & foggers  increased autism risk 2.6-fold.
  • Exposure to outdoor pesticide sprays & foggers increased autism risk 4.1-fold
  • Exposure to agricultural pesticides increased autism risk 2.2-fold.

In contrast, high (800 ug) intake of  folic acid during pregnancy (early) and conception significantly decreased the effect of pesticide exposure on autism risk. The breakdown was as follows:

  • 27% decrease in autism risk due to exposure to any indoor pesticides.
  • 59% decrease in autism risk due to pet flea & tick pesticide exposure.
  • 32% decrease in autism risk due to indoor pesticide sprays & foggers.
  • 56% decrease in autism risk due to outdoor pesticide sprays & foggers.
  • 50% decrease in autism risk due to agricultural pesticide exposure.

In short, this study suggests that pesticide exposure during pregnancy increases autism risk and 800 ug of folic acid during conception and early pregnancy substantially decreases the effect of pesticide exposure on autism risk.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

pesticide exposureIf confirmed by subsequent research, this study has several significant implications that deserve serious consideration.

#1:Pesticide exposure is ubiquitous. Nobody wants bugs in their house or on their garden plants, so we spray pesticides everywhere without giving it a second thought. We don’t want to be bothered by mosquitoes so we use foggers on our outdoor areas and spray bug repellents on ourselves when we go outdoors. We want the perfect lawn so we hire someone to spray gallons of pesticides and herbicides on the lawn where we and our children will play. We have pesticides on our food and in our water. If we live in agricultural areas, we breath pesticides. That’s how we end up with 287 environmental toxins (217 of which are neurotoxins) in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.

#2: Pesticide exposure is not innocuous. This study suggests pesticide exposure during pregnancy increases autism risk. Other studies suggest pesticide exposure increases the risk of ADHD, birth defects, cancer and much more. None of these studies is definitive by itself. The problem is that most pesticide exposure is at relatively low levels. In addition, nobody is pesticide free so it is difficult to find a good control population. It would require very large population studies to show conclusive effects, and those studies would be extremely expensive. However, when you see study after study suggesting that pesticide exposure may be harmful to our health, it may be time to take notice and ask whether all this pesticide use is essential.

#3: Supplementation may help protect us from environmental toxins. This study suggests that folic acid during pregnancy helps protect against the autism risk from pesticide exposure. Other studies suggest supplementation helps protect against the bad effects of other environmental toxins. We talk about the need of supplementation to fill the nutritional gaps of our bad diets. We talk about how supplementation can help meet the increased needs associated with disease, biological stress and genetic defects. However, we seldom talk about the need for supplementation to help protect us from environmental toxins in our increasingly polluted world.

#4: Flea & tick pesticides for your pets are among the worst offenders. If you are a woman who is pregnant or of childbearing age, have your husband or veterinarian handle the flea & tick medicine. You don’t want to be touching the stuff.

#5: Once again, folic acid was sufficient to do the job, even in women with MTHFR deficiency.

 

The Bottom Line

 

A recent study suggests that pesticide exposure during pregnancy increases autism risk, and that supplementation with 800 ug of folic acid during conception and early pregnancy substantially decreases the effect of pesticide exposure on autism risk.

There are several important implications of this research.

  • Pesticide exposure is ubiquitous. That’s how we end up with 287 environmental toxins (217 of which are neurotoxins) in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.
  • Pesticide exposure is not innocuous. This study suggests that pesticide exposure during pregnancy significantly increases autism risk in newborns. Other studies suggest pesticide exposure increases the risk of ADHD, birth defects, cancer, and much more. Perhaps it is time to seriously consider decreasing pesticide usage.
  • Flea & tick medicines for your pets are among the worst offenders. If you are a woman who is pregnant or of childbearing age, have your husband or veterinarian handle the flea & tick medicine. You don’t want to be touching the stuff.
  • Supplementation can help protect us from environmental toxins. This study suggests folic acid can help protect pregnant women against the autism risk from pesticide exposure during pregnancy. Other studies suggest supplementation helps protect against the bad effects of other environmental toxins. We don’t give enough consideration to the need for supplementation to help protect us from environmental toxins in our increasingly polluted world.
  • Once again, folic acid was sufficient to do the job, even in women with MTHFR deficiency.

 

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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  • bonnie zeman

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    Amazing information

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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