Folate May Mitigate Pesticide-Related Autism

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Pesticides appear to be a contributing factor in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A dysfunctional gut microbiome is suspected of being part of the problem in ASD, and glyphosate disrupts the gut microbiome
  • Low folate (vitamin B9) has also been shown to play a role in neurological disorders. Folate is naturally produced by gut microbes, and since glyphosate disrupts the gut microbiome, it may well lead to a decreased ability to produce folate, thereby inducing folate deficiency
  • Research shows taking the recommended 800 mcg of folic acid at the time of conception helps lower your child’s risk of pesticide-related autism. However, folic acid is a poor substitute for natural folate; better alternatives are discussed

By Dr. Mercola

In the 1980s, the incidence of autism was 1 in 10,000.1,2 As of 2012 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children between the ages of 6 and 17 was 1 in 50.3 It's highly unlikely that the stratospheric rise in ASD could be traced back to a single culprit.

The most logical conclusion is that this wide range of brain disorders are the result of individual responses to toxic exposures from multiple sources, including the mother, while in utero.4 One source in particular that has been repeatedly pointed out is pesticides, and glyphosate in particular. EMF exposure is another likely candidate.5

Nearly 1 billion pounds of glyphosate are sprayed on food crops each year in the U.S. alone (that number increases to 5 billion worldwide), and research suggests this chemical may be a driving factor behind many of the chronic diseases encountered in Western societies. Autism is just one problem linked to pesticide exposure. Mothers who are exposed to pesticides during pregnancy are also at increased risk of premature delivery.6

Monsanto, which manufactures and sells the best-selling glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, has maintained that Roundup and glyphosate (the active ingredient) are harmless.  

But researchers such as Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Anthony Samsel, Ph.D., a research scientist and environmental and public health consultant, have discovered and published papers explaining the mechanisms by which glyphosate destroys health and contributes to chronic disease and brain disorders such as autism.

A dysfunctional gut microbiome has long been suspected of being part of the problem in ASD, and glyphosate indeed disrupts the gut microbiome. The presence of certain gut microbes in pregnant mice was again recently linked to a heightened risk of "abnormal brain wiring" and autism-like behavior in offspring.7 In a nutshell, certain microbes trigger the release of immune-signaling molecules that "somehow causes abnormal brain development in the fetuses."

Folate May Mitigate Pesticide-Induced Autism Risk

Low folate (vitamin B9, the synthetic version of which is folic acid) has also been shown to play a role in a number of neurological disorders. Folate is naturally produced by certain gut microbes, and since glyphosate disrupts the gut microbiome, it may well lead to a decreased ability to produce folate, thereby inducing folate deficiency. Recent research by UC Davis seems to confirm this hypothesis.

They found that taking the recommended amount of folic acid at the time of conception may in fact lower your child's risk of pesticide-related autism specifically. Interestingly, UC Davis is heavily funded by the biotech industry, which has vigorously defended itself against accusations that pesticides contribute to autism, so it's a pleasant surprise to see UC Davis researchers are even acknowledging the pesticide-autism link. As reported in a UC Davis press release:8

"In the study, children whose mothers took 800 or more micrograms [mcg] of folic acid (the amount in most prenatal vitamins) had a significantly lower risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — even when their mothers were exposed to household or agricultural pesticides associated with increased risk …

'We found that if the mom was taking folic acid during the window around conception, the risk associated with pesticides seemed to be attenuated,' said Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences and first author on the paper. 'Mothers should try to avoid pesticides. But if they live near agriculture, where pesticides can blow in, this might be a way to counter those effects."

Women whose folic acid intake was less than 800 mcg per day and were exposed to pesticides had "a much higher estimated risk of having a child who developed an ASD" compared to those who took the recommended amount and had no pesticide exposure. Not surprisingly, repeated pesticide exposures resulted in increasingly higher risk of having a child with ASD.

Those at greatest risk were mothers with the greatest exposure to pesticide and the lowest folic acid intake. While this study did not establish a causal link, Schmidt noted that:

"Folate plays a critical role in DNA methylation (a process by which genes are turned off or on), as well as in DNA repair and synthesis. These are all really important during periods of rapid growth when there are lots of cells dividing, as in a developing fetus. Adding folic acid might be helping out in a number of these genomic functions."

Folic Acid Supplementation May Merely Mask Toxic Exposures

While most people assume folate and folic acid are interchangeable, it is important to realize there are significant differences between them. Prenatal vitamins and many staple foods are fortified with folic acid to prevent birth defects associated with deficiency during fetal development.

Being deficient in folate during the first trimester of your pregnancy is a major risk factor for neural tube defects such as spina bifida, anencephaly and exencephaly.

However, as noted in a Weston A. Price article by Seneff9 — in which she addresses the links between folic acid, glyphosate and spina bifida — folate and folic acid are NOT interchangeable, even though many researchers, who probably should know better, use them as such. Seneff writes:

"The folic acid supplement that's added to flour is a synthetic version of the B vitamin, which is oxidized and missing the methyl group. The active form of the vitamin is technically called methyltetrahydrofolate. Folic acid is much more stable, whereas folate easily breaks down with aging or with heat … Folic acid is a (cheaper) synthetic molecule whereas folate is natural.

According to the U.S. government's Code of Federal Regulations … fortified wheat products must contain 0.7 milligrams of folic acid … This regulation became law in 1998, at a time when genetically modified (GM) RoundUp-Ready corn and soy crops had been on the market for a few years … The incidence of spina bifida was also increasing at that time, which is what alerted the government to a potential problem with folate deficiency.

One has to wonder whether somebody involved in the introduction of this law knew something about the potential of glyphosate to cause spina bifida. It would not take a rocket scientist to think that disruption of the gut microbes that naturally produce folate for the host would lead to folate deficiency. In fact, it is a direct hit: folate is produced from products of the shikimate pathway, and this is the pathway that even Monsanto admits is disrupted in plants and microbes by glyphosate.

Furthermore, the microbes that synthesize folate for the host, lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, are the ones that glyphosate preferentially kills. A continued rise in spina bifida would raise public awareness of a hidden environmental toxicant that might be causing this rise. Making sure that pregnant women were well supplied with external folic acid might mask the problem."

Folate Lowers Cancer Risk While Folic Acid May Raise It

As mentioned, folate plays a critical role in DNA methylation, but that does not mean folic acid does as well. As noted by Seneff, while studies confirm folate appears protective against breast and uterine cancer, folic acid fortification of foods has been linked to an increase in colorectal cancer since its introduction.10

Studies have also confirmed that inactive folic acid remains present in the blood of post-menopausal women who take daily folic acid supplements, and that natural killer cells are diminished in the presence of elevated folic acid levels.

"What is probably happening is that the inactive folic acid is binding to the folate receptors and preventing access by the methyltetrahydrofolate. This gives a hint as to how excess folic acid might increase risk to cancer: by getting in the way!" Seneff writes.

"(Methyltetrahydro) folate protects from cancer by preventing DNA mutations, which can turn off cancer-protective genes and cause cells to start proliferating uncontrollably. However, folate also fuels proliferation, because it is necessary for the synthesis of certain DNA nucleotides. Once you have a cancer growing, folate will encourage the cancer to grow bigger.

Part of the chemotherapy program used to treat cancer involves anti-folate drugs: drugs that interfere with folate signaling. While these drugs prevent growth of the existing tumor, they also encourage further DNA mutations, which could lead to metastasis from the tumor, and it will also cause an increased risk of new cancers … 

Meanwhile, anti-folate chemotherapy treatments are being widely administered to actively reduce the bioavailability of folate, which has been shown to fuel cancer growth, for both breast cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma."

Why Folic Acid Supplements Are a Poor Substitute for Folate-Rich Foods

In short, while folate sufficiency helps prevent certain cancers, excessive folic acid (the synthetic form) can encourage tumor growth, and suppressing folate bioavailability also fuels cancer growth. According to Seneff, there's evidence to suggest many Americans are getting far too much folic acid (from fortified processed foods and supplements), and suffering ill effects from it. Meanwhile, many are not getting enough folate from real food.

One of the reasons folic acid does not have the same effects as folate has to do with the way it's metabolized in your body.11 Naturally occurring folate is metabolized to tetrahydrofolate (THF) in your small intestine.

Synthetic folic acid, meanwhile, is initially reduced and methylated in your liver, where the enzyme dihydrofolate (DHF) reductase is required for the conversion of the folic acid into the active THF form your body can use (THF can even cross the blood brain barrier, which helps explain folate's usefulness against neurological disorders).

If you have low activity of this enzyme in your liver (which many do), and take high amounts of folic acid, you may end up with excessive levels of unmetabolized folic acid in your system, which is what they found in the study looking at folic acid levels in the blood of post-menopausal women taking supplements.  

Dr. Ben Lynch, a naturopathic doctor who specializes in methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene-related disease, also believes folic acid is dangerous. This gene provides instructions for making MTHFR, an enzyme that converts folic acid into methylfolate, the active form of folate.

Mutations in this gene,12 which are quite common, results in a reduced ability to properly process folate and folic acid, and has been linked to a decreased ability to detoxify and a wide range of chronic health problems, including neurological diseases, birth defects and cancers. To learn more, please listen to Dave Asprey's interview13 with him, in which they discuss this in greater depth.

Methylfolate — A Better Supplement Alternative

A far better alternative to folic acid is L-methylfolate (5-MTHF), sometimes referred to as just methylfolate, which is a biologically active form of this B vitamin.14 This form appears to be particularly beneficial if you have a MTHFR mutation, as it circumvents the folic acid metabolism cycle.

However, when looking for a supplement containing this vitamin, you have to be very careful, as this biologically active form has a name that is hard to distinguish from a nonactive form of methylfolate.  So, when looking for a folate supplement, be sure to carefully read the label, paying attention to each letter in the name:

  • L-methylfolate and 6(S)-methylfolate are both biologically active forms of vitamin B9. Other names of these active forms include metafolin and quatrefolic
  • D-methylfolate and 6(R)-methylfolate are biologically INACTIVE and should be avoided

Beware of supplements that list only "methylfolate" or "5-MTHF" without specifying the exact form. Be sure it specifies containing L-methylfolate, 6(S)-methylfolate, metafolin or quartrefolic.

More on Glyphosate and Autism

Getting back to where we started, it's worth noting that genetically engineered (GE) crops are far more contaminated with glyphosate than conventional crops, courtesy of the fact that they're engineered to withstand extremely high levels of the chemical without perishing along with the weeds. Glyphosate contamination is a major part of the overall hazards of GE foods, as the chemical cannot be washed off. It's incorporated into every cell of the plant.

Former U.S. Navy staff scientist Nancy Swanson, Ph.D., has meticulously collected statistics on glyphosate usage and various diseases and conditions, including autism, the results of which are shown in the graphic below. It's hard to imagine a more perfect match-up between the rise in glyphosate usage and incidence of autism. You can access her published articles and reports on Sustainable Pulse,15 a European website dedicated to exposing the hazards of genetically engineered foods.

glyphosate and autism

Shikimate Pathway Is the Key to Understanding How Glyphosate Harms Health and Promotes ASD

Again, Monsanto insists Roundup is harmless to humans because the mechanism of action (which allows it to kill weeds), called the shikimate pathway, is absent in humans and animals. However, the shikimate pathway is present in bacteria, and that's the key to understanding how it causes such widespread systemic harm in animals and humans. For every cell in your body, you have about 10 microbes of various kinds and all of them have the shikimate pathway; hence, all of them can respond to the presence of glyphosate.

For example, the shikimate pathway produces precursors to a wide range of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, melatonin, serotonin and adrenaline. When you cannot produce those precursors, you become deficient. Celiac disease is just one of many conditions that can ensue as a result, as serotonin deficiency is strongly implicated in celiac disease.

Research by Samsel and Seneff reveal glyphosate causes extreme disruption of the microbe's function and lifecycle. What's worse, glyphosate preferentially affects beneficial bacteria, allowing pathogens to overgrow and take over. At that point, your body also has to contend with the toxins produced by the pathogens. Once the chronic inflammation sets in, you're well on your way toward chronic and potentially debilitating disease. This microbial disruption in the gut is also thought to be a significant contributing factor to ASD.

Glyphosate Toxicity and ASD

Samsel and Seneff's research shows that glyphosate inhibits cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes, a large and diverse group of enzymes that catalyze the oxidation of organic substances. This, they state, is "an overlooked component of its toxicity to mammals."

As mentioned, toxicity of all kinds is likely a significant contributor to ASD, and by inhibiting your body's ability to detoxify foreign chemical compounds, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of toxins and greatly elevates your risk for ASD and other neurological disorders and chronic diseases.

Glyphosate also impairs sulfur transport, and this too plays a role in chronic disease — everything  from depression and autism to celiac disease, heart disease and cancer. This is in part why Seneff recommends soaking in magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) baths rather than taking a sulfur supplement such as chondroitin sulfate. This way, it can bypass your gut mucosa.

The Importance of B Vitamins for Brain Health

Aside from preventing birth defects and lowering the risk of pesticide-related ASD, getting sufficient amounts of folate (along with other B vitamins, especially B6 and B12) is also important for the prevention of depression and Alzheimer's.

Here, one of the mechanisms of action is the suppression of homocysteine, which tends to be elevated when you have brain degeneration. If you don't get enough of these B vitamins, your homocysteine levels increase. Conversely, when you increase intake of folate, B6 and B12, your homocysteine levels decrease.

One study confirming this was published in 2010.16 Participants received either a placebo or 800 mcg of folic acid, 500 mcg of B12 and 20 mg of B6. The study was based on the presumption that by controlling homocysteine levels you might be able to reduce brain shrinkage, thereby slowing the onset of Alzheimer's. Indeed, after two years those who received the vitamin regimen had significantly less brain shrinkage compared to the placebo group.

A 2013 study17 took this research a step further, showing that B vitamins (folic acid, B6 and B12) specifically slow shrinkage in brain regions known to be most severely impacted by Alzheimer's. In these critical areas, shrinkage was decreased as much as 700 percent. More generally, brain shrinkage was reduced by up to 90 percent.

How to Increase Your Folate Intake

The best way to avoid folate (B9) deficiency is to eat plenty of fresh, raw, organic leafy green vegetables, especially broccoli, asparagus, spinach and turnip greens.18 Remember, for folic acid to be of any use to you (and to be able to reach your brain through your blood brain barrier), it must first be activated into its biologically active form, L-5-MTHF.

Nearly half of the population has difficulty converting folic acid into the bioactive form due to a genetic reduction in enzyme activity, so if you take a B vitamin supplement, make sure it contains natural or bioavailable folate (such as nutritional yeast,19 L-methylfolate, 6(S)-methylfolate, metafolin or quartrefolic) rather than synthetic folic acid.

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