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Moms-to-be looking for a way to cut down the chances of their kid having autism might start by being vigilant about taking prenatal iron supplements. That’s according to new research out of the University of California – Davis MIND Institute, which has found that a mom’s low iron intake was associated with up to a five-fold greater risk of autism in her child.
“This is the first study to demonstrate that maternal iron intake might be associated with autism in the child,” lead researcher Rebecca Schmidt, an assistant professor in the department of Public Health Sciences, told Yahoo Health. “Many researchers have thought that iron could be important for autism, and previous evidence has shown that children with autism are more likely to have insufficient iron status. In addition, it has been known for decades that iron during pregnancy is important for brain development.”
Other maternal-health factors played into the higher risk along with lower iron intake, including the mom being 35 or older or suffering from metabolic conditions such as obesity, hypertension, or diabetes, according to the study, which will be published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology in early October.
Though all the moms in the study took a fairly high amount of prenatal iron — 86 milligrams daily on the high end and 30 milligrams on the low end (the USDA daily recommendation for pregnant women) — the lowest risk of autism was still associated with moms who took the most, through either supplements or fortified sources, such as breakfast cereals. Schmidt stressed, however, that taking high amounts of iron isn’t necessarily the answer for everyone, as women can absorb the iron differently depending on their weight, whether or not they have diabetes, and many other factors. “So the biggest takeaway message for women would be to do what your doctor recommends,” and that includes taking iron supplements, Schmidt said.
“We did not examine food iron in this study — we are collecting that information now — but typically foods are better sources of iron because you cannot get too much food iron, but you can get too much supplemental iron, which can be toxic,” Schmidt noted. Iron-rich foods include beef, sardines, beans, tofu, broccoli, walnuts, and spinach. “However, for women who do not get enough iron in their diet, supplements are helpful for maintaining iron status.”
For the study, researchers examined data on 866 mother-child pairs — 520 of which had a child with autism and the rest of which were controls — from the ongoing Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study, which collected the information between the years of 2002 and 2009.
Iron deficiencies in children have been previously associated with higher risk of autism; a 2013 study, for example, linked it with a range of psychiatric disorders, including autism, depression, and bipolar disorder.
“Iron is important for several processes of brain development and function,” Schmidt noted. “In the brain, iron contributes to neurotransmitter production, myelination, and immune function; [impairment] of all three of these pathways has been associated with autism.” Still, she said, there is much work to be done before scientists get to the root causes of autism.
“I think we have a ways to go before we know what contributes to autism for each person who gets it, but at least knowing factors that could help prevent autism gives mothers something they can do to try to reduce their child’s chances for getting autism,” she said. What the finding is not about, Schmidt stressed, is placing blame on the mother.
“If you have a child with autism and are planning another pregnancy, this might just be something to watch,” she said. “Taking iron is recommended anyway, as about half of women become deficient during pregnancy.”