Iron deficiency is prevalent in pregnant women, which explains why iron supplement is often prescribed during pregnancy. New study shows just how crucial it is that pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers eat iron-rich food and take the recommended dosage of iron supplement as low iron intake was found to be associated with increased risk of their children developing autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by repetitive behaviors as well as difficulty in social interaction and communication and while some individuals with ASD excel in music, math, arts and visual skills, the condition is linked with intellectual disability and physical health issues.

For the new study, which was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology on Sept. 22, Rebecca Schmidt, from the University of California, and colleagues involved hundreds of mothers whose children either have autism or have typical development.

The researchers looked at the eating habits and vitamin supplement intake of the mothers to determine if there is a link between maternal iron intake and the chances of having a child with autism. They found that the mothers whose children have ASD had lower iron intake compared with those whose children do not have the condition.

"The highest quintile of iron intake during the index period was associated with reduced ASD risk compared with the lowest especially during breastfeeding," the researchers wrote.

Schmidt said that iron deficiency and anemia is among the most common nutritional deficiency during pregnancy affecting up to 50 percent of women and their babies, which is why doctors often recommend that women eat iron-rich food such as red meat, green leafy vegetables, beans and iron-fortified breads, as well as take iron supplement during their pregnancy.

"Iron is crucial to early brain development, contributing to neurotransmitter production, myelination and immune function. All three of these pathways have been associated with autism," Schmidt said.

The risks of the children developing autism is also increased if the mother was at least 35 years old at the time of birth and if she is obese or has metabolic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.

"Low iron intake significantly interacted with advanced maternal age and metabolic conditions; combined exposures were associated with a 5-fold increased ASD risk," Schmidt and colleagues wrote.

Although the researchers said that the findings of the study still needs to be replicated, they urged women to do what their doctor recommends particularly when it comes to taking the prescribed daily dosage of vitamins during pregnancy.

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