Vitamin D supplements may help with autism
New research has established a clear link between autism and maternal vitamin D deficiency. Two new studies by the University of Queensland Brain Institute have shown that vitamin D supplementation in the first trimester of pregnancy can prevent the development of autism-related traits.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes autism and Asperger’s syndrome. It is called a spectrum because the severity of symptoms varies greatly from person to person. Autism usually manifests in early childhood, but is not always properly diagnosed, and is associated with impaired social skills, learning difficulties and certain restricted, repetitive or obsessive behaviors. According to autismnz.org.nz, autism spectrum disorders affect 1 in 66 New Zealanders.
One of the studies by the University of Queensland Brain Institute, published in December 2016, analyzed data from a long-term study in the Netherlands that followed several thousand mothers and their children over several years. The analysis of blood samples and other data, from 4229 mothers and children, found that pregnant women with low vitamin D levels at 20 weeks’ gestation were more likely to have a child with autistic behavior by age six.
The other study, also conducted by Queensland Brain Institute and published in March 2017, involved giving mice a vitamin D supplement during the early stages of pregnancy (during the equivalent of the first trimester). This resulted in a reduction in autistic traits in their offspring in terms of “social interaction, stereotyped behavior, emotional learning and memory, and innate anxiety-like behavior”.
Further research planned
Scientists at the University of Queensland’s are excited with the results of their latest research, as vitamin D supplementation is a very accessible and simple solution to a problem that affects large numbers of children born around the world.
The active hormonal form of vitamin D3 (calcitriol) can’t be given to pregnant women because it may affect the skeletal development of the fetus, and this is the form that was used in the mouse study. However, cholecalciferol (another form of vitamin D3) is safe for use during pregnancy.
Further research is planned, to determine the ideal timing and safe dosage for pregnant mothers, and more funding has recently been made available for this.
It was previously thought that the effects of vitamin D on inflammation were a key factor in the prevention of ASD. However, the mouse study showed no reduction in the pro-inflammatory molecules that were previously associated with ASD. This means there is another mechanism at work linked to maternal vitamin D levels, which the researchers believe also warrants further investigation.
Other neurodevelopmental disorders linked to vitamin D deficiency
The importance of vitamin D for bone growth has long been recognized. These and other recent studies further reinforce the importance of vitamin D in neural development.
Other recent studies have drawn links between fetal brain development and maternal vitamin D. A 2016 Danish study linked vitamin D deficiency in pregnant mothers to their children developing ADHD.
The research group at the University of Queensland has also found a link between vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women and the likelihood of their children developing schizophrenia.
A 2016 study by Auckland University indicated that vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy reduces the incidence of childhood allergies and asthma.
Vitamin D not just important in pregnancy
It is essential at all stages of life in supporting the brain and nervous system, the immune system’s ability to fight colds and flu’s, regulating insulin levels, supporting lung and heart health and metabolic processes, and even reducing the risk of cancer and fighting autoimmune diseases. Part of the reason vitamin D is so central is its role in helping our bodies to absorb other vitamins and minerals, especially calcium and phosphorus.
Our main source of vitamin D is sunlight. We also get it from certain foods but in much lower amounts. Although supplementation is another option, it should be considered where sun exposure is insufficient.