Adressing Concerns About Folate And Autism

folic acidHave you seen the frightening headlines saying that high folate levels in pregnant mothers are associated with an increased risk of their child having Autism? Once again, there is so much more to the story than meets the eye.

1) This is only a preliminary study and it looked at blood levels of folate, NOT how much folate a woman was taking while pregnant. The evidence associating high levels are folate and Autism is premature and the real story is much more complicated than the study from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health  suggests.

2) High levels of folate in the blood are often related to slow metabolism of folic acid. Slow folic acid metabolism is linked to a number of genetic mutations collectively called MTHFR, which we already know are associated with an increased risk for Autism. The MTHFR mutation is VERY common and may affect up up 40% of Caucasians. MTHFR mutations are also associated with a higher risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD, neurological disorders, migraines, miscarriage, infertility, lymphoma, and leukemia.

3) Women are told to take folic acid in pregnancy  to prevent birth defects, but if they have an MTHFR mutation they will be less able to utilize this form of the vitamin. When folic acid is not properly activated and used by the body for normal functions it is more likely to hang around in the blood, showing up as high serum folate. To complicate matters even more, many processed foods (bread, tortillas, crackers, protein bars, energy drinks, etc.) are fortified with folic acid. This was a public health decision that has successfully decreased neural tube defects like spina bifida, but may be detrimental to the many people with MTHFR mutations.

4) Fortunately there are forms of folate (and other B vitamins) that people with MTHFR can properly metabolize. Folate is extremely important for blood cell development, neurotransmitter function, and detoxification pathways.

5) I recommend that all women who are considering pregnancy be tested for MTHFR mutations so that they can start appropriate supplements before they become pregnant.

Just to reiterate, high levels of folic acid in the bloodstream are most likely the result of a genetic mutation associated with autism and are NOT the cause of Autism.

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Improving Fertility Through Diet

pregnantCan nutrition effect fertility? A small study shows that women who eat diets higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates may have a higher chance of becoming pregnant. The study, released at an annual meeting of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, looked at a group of women undergoing fertility treatments and saw that the women who ate more protein had higher rates of pregnancy than those who ate higher amounts of carbs.

According to study researcher, Dr. Jeffrey Russell, director of the Delaware Institute for Reproductive Medicine, “Protein is essential for good quality embryos and better egg quality, it turns out”. This might not sound like a surprise to some, but this diet recommendation is another possible tool for women who are trying to become pregnant.

Good-quality proteins include organic and free-range poultry, pork, beef, lamb, and eggs, along with beans, nuts, lentils, and organic dairy. A healthy diet should also include lots and lots of fresh vegetables!

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Is it Safe to Eat Fish During Pregnancy?

salmon-dinnerDo you have questions about eating seafood while you’re pregnant? Have you been told to avoid sushi or to be careful about high mercury levels in fish? Moms want nothing more than to protect their kids and to give them a good start in life, and part of that is getting good nutrition during pregnancy. There are tons of lists out there about what to eat or not eat when you’re pregnant and a lot of the advice can be confusing. One of the more controversial items I’ve seen up for debate is fish; to eat or not to eat, and how much is safe to eat if you do eat it?

Seafood and Pregnancy Pros and Cons

So what’s the deal with seafood? On the positive side, seafood and fish are healthy sources of protein, zinc, and iron, along with omega-3 fatty acids that support a growing baby’s brain development. More problematic however is that many fish, especially the larger predatory species, can be full of mercury and other toxins. This is because these animals are higher up on the food chain and they absorb and then bioaccumulate toxins from their own food sources. Mercury is a health concern for humans and when ingested, mercury can cross through the placenta into a fetus’ circulation, causing organ and tissue damage. Mercury especially affects a growing baby’s brain and neurological development. The Environmental Protection Agency states that children exposed to mercury in utero may develop issues with cognition, attention, language, memory, and fine motor and visual spatial skills.

Safe Seafood Options and Portion Sizes

Despite the concerns, most researchers and doctors agree that fish should still be included in a pregnant woman’s diet due to the numerous health benefits this food group provides. Currently the FDA recommends women eat 8 to 12 oz of fish each week during pregnancy. This is equivalent to 2 or 3 portions per week. However, pregnant women (and everyone really!) should be careful to choose fish species that are lowest in mercury content. Good choices of fish that are low in mercury levels include: Wild Alaskan Salmon, Rainbow Trout, Sardines, Anchovies, and Atlantic Mackerel. Fish that are high in mercury, such as Shark, Swordfish, Orange Roughy, and Marlin should be avoided. Albacore and other species of tuna are also relatively high in mercury and should be limited to no more than one serving per month. Raw fish and sushi are also not recommended in pregnancy due to risk for parasites and food-borne illnesses.

Safe Seafood Guide

If this sounds overwhelming to navigate and remember, there is thankfully a great online resource for moms-to-be. The Environmental Working Group offers a customized tool to help you find clean and nutrient-rich seafood sources. The guide lists seafood choices that are big on nutrition and low in heavy metals. This resource is amazing even if you’re not pregnant, since you can input your age, gender, and health information and it automatically gives you recommendations on what kinds of fish to eat, along with how many servings you should aim for each week.

So fear not! Armed with a little knowledge on what choices to make, fish and seafood are a great addition to a healthy diet and they can provide lots of nutrients to support a healthy growing baby.

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