There is significant anecdotal evidence that vitamin B9, also known as folate, folic acid or folinic acid, provides benefits for some children with autism.
Vitamin B9, also known as folate, is critical to healthy brain function. Folic acid, a synthetic B9 derivative, occurs in fortified foods and supplements. Folinic acid, also a derivative product, is converted more rapidly into a specific type of folate that can be directly transported to the brain.
It is folinic acid that can be used to increase glutathione (an antioxidant) in the brains of autistic children, as well as increasing the level of the dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in autistic spectrum disorders. However, folic acid also appears to provide benefits for many autistic children.
Function of Folate
Folate is critical to cell production and maintenance, particularly at times when the body is growing fast such as pregnancy, infancy and adolescence. It also helps to prevent DNA changes that can lead to cancer.
B9’s importance can be seen in the fact that the children of women who take folic acid before they conceive and during their first trimester of pregnancy are 72-100% less likely to suffer from neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Also, the incidence of neural tube defects decreased by 19% in the U.S. after the practice of fortifying grains with folic acid was widely adopted.
Of all the B vitamins, people are most often deficient in B9. Symptoms of a deficiency include slow physical growth, loss of appetite, tongue inflammation, shortness of breath, gingivitis, diarrhea, forgetfulness, irritability and mental sluggishness.
Long-term use of antibiotics may deplete levels of vitamin B9 in the body and thus increase the need for supplementation. Ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen and other anti-inflammatories may also increase the need for vitamin B9, as can a number of other medications.
Sources of Folate
Folate is found naturally in dark leafy greens such as spinach, as well as beets, turnips, lima beans, kidney beans, mung beans, white beans, soybeans, Brussels sprouts, beef liver, root vegetables, brewer’s yeast, whole grains, bulgar wheat, wheat germ, oysters, salmon, avocados, milk and orange juice.
B9 is also available as a supplement, either on its own or as part of a multivitamin. When taking B9 as a supplement, it is best to choose a multivitamin that contains the other B vitamins as well, as these are necessary for folate activation. B12 is particularly beneficial in conjunction with folate, and folate is more effective when taken with vitamin C.
Efficacy in Treating Autistic Spectrum Disorders
Evidence for the efficacy of B9 is largely anecdotal. French researcher Jerome Lejeune found that 250 mcg per pound of body weight daily generated significant improvement in some autistic children. Of the Autism Research Institute’s 131 parent reviews, nearly half (48%) cited improvements in their autistic children after taking folic acid, compared to 44% who saw no effect and 8% who said that their children grew worse.
In addition to providing protection against a number of diseases such as cancer, folate may be useful in treating conditions that often occur in conjunction with autistic spectrum disorders such as depression. Those with depression are more inclined to have low folate levels, and taking a folate supplement can reduce depressive symptoms in many people. Taking B6 and B12 along with B9 increases the efficacy of folate in treating depression.
At normal doses, side effects are rare. However, large doses may cause sleep problems, seizures, skin reactions and stomach problems. It is important to speak to a medical professional in order to establish a safe dose, as there may be factors in an individual’s medical profile that will affect the level of folate required.
Folate can reduce the effectiveness of the antibiotic tetracycline and so folate supplements and antibiotics should not be taken at the same time of the day (this is true of all B vitamins). Antacids and certain medications used for heartburn, ulcers and related symptoms, as well as the diabetes medication metformin, can inhibit B9 absorption and so should be taken at a different time of the day as B9 supplements. Certain barbiturates can also impair the metabolism of B9.
Consult a Physician
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you are interested in using vitamin and mineral supplements to treat autism, depression or other conditions, you should consult your family physician.