Mother_Kissing_BabyResearchers working to uncover the causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are investigating environmental factors that may spur its development. A new study from the University of California Davis MIND Institute finds that children of mothers who consumed less iron while pregnant and nursing had a higher autism risk. The findings contribute to evidence suggesting that environmental factors are part of the cause of autism. The study is the first to investigate the correlation between maternal iron intake and children with autism.

The researchers used data from the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. CHARGE surveyed mother-child pairs in California between 2002 and 2009. Both children with and without ASD were represented in the study.

For the present study, the researchers examined the women’s iron intake. They considered sources like vitamins, nutritional supplements, and breakfast cereals. They also analyzed the frequency, dosage, and brands of iron supplements that the women consumed. The evaluated the women’s iron intake from three months prior to their child’s birth through breastfeeding.

Women whose children developed autism were more likely to have a lower level of iron intake. Low iron was also associated with a five-fold greater risk of ASD if the mother was over 35 years old. There was also a significantly increased risk if the mother had metabolic conditions like diabetes. The link between low iron and autism was strongest during breastfeeding. Women who had low iron intake while breastfeeding were more likely to have a child with ASD.

It is too early to draw firm conclusions about the effects of iron intake on the development of autism. The researchers caution that the study’s findings need to be replicated by other scientists first. “In the meantime the takeaway message for women is do what your doctor recommends. Take vitamins throughout pregnancy, and take the recommended daily dosage. If there are side effects, talk to your doctor about how to address them,” concluded Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and researcher affiliated with the MIND Institute.

This research is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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