Smart moves: Reduce your risk of having a child with a neurological disorder

The statistics are alarming no matter how you crunch the numbers. There has been a large increase in recent years of children diagnosed with neurological disorders.

A 2016 “Community Report on Autism,” published by the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control, reported, “One in 68 children or 1.5 percent of 8-year-olds were identified with autism spectrum disorder.” This statistic is particularly daunting because this network studied children ages 4.5 to 9.9 years in 2000 and found that only one in 150 children had a diagnosis.

The percent of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is also concerning. The Centers for Disease Control reports, “The percent of children estimated to have ADHD has changed over time and can vary by how it is measured. Recent surveys show that approximately 11 percent of children 4–17 years of age (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011. A history of ADHD diagnosis by a healthcare provider increased by 42 percent between 2003 and 2011.”

In 2007, the National Institute of Mental Health issued a press release stating, “The number of visits to a doctor’s office that resulted in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children and adolescents has increased by 40 times over the last decade.”

Whether the statistics are rising due to earlier under-diagnosis, current over-diagnosis, a true increase in prevalence of the disorders, or some combination of these factors, the numbers have sparked needed debate and continued research. Are the increases due to toxins in the environment? Can a specific diet, exercise program, or reduction in stress during pregnancy reduce the chance of a child being born with a neurological disorder? The bottom line: Women who plan to be pregnant should educate themselves and prepare their bodies, even before conception.

Chris Willhite is chairman of the board of directors for the Neurological Health Foundation, a non-profit that works with medical doctors, nutritionists, neuroscientists, and other researchers to develop specific, evidence-based recommendations that women or couples can follow to improve the odds of having a healthy child, free of chronic neurological health disorders. Willhite talks a bit about the alarming statistics.

“NHF has been around since 2011. It was founded by a group of parents who found the increase in neurological health problems with children extremely disturbing. The cases of bipolar disorder, ADHD, and autism were rising at alarming rates.”

Willhite says that there are several contributors, including environmental toxins, diet, and stress during pregnancy.

“We can educate parents on how to have a higher probability of having a healthy child,” he says.

Nutrition specifics

“What we know about foods has not changed too much over the years, but there are some specific things to consider,” explains Dr. James B. Adams, director of the Autism-Asperger’s Research Program at Arizona State University and chair of the Neurological Health Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board. “Prenatal vitamins should be taken even before you plan to conceive. Women who do this have a 40 percent lower chance of having a child with autism.”

The vitamins and minerals present in the prenatal vitamins that doctors prescribe — including folic acid, vitamin D, and iron — are crucial for a growing fetus.

Adams says that most women are not getting enough vitamin D and that taking a supplement from the start can reduce the number of pre-term births by half. Many women also have iron deficiencies, and low iron can increase your chance of having a baby with autism (e.g. a University of California, Davis study found that 40 to 50 percent of pregnant women have an iron deficiency). However, not all physicians retest for iron levels after the first tests are taken.

“It’s very important to test for iron again in the third trimester,” Adams states.

It’s also imperative to have folic acid (the synthetic version of folate, which is found in dark green vegetables and citrus fruits) in your system before you get pregnant. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that women take 400 mcg of folic acid every day starting one month before they get pregnant. This is because folic acid helps your baby’s neural tube development.

“Folic acid is important in reducing autism because it helps with the methylation cycle (process of turning genes on and off),” says Adams. Studies have shown that impaired methylation leads to increased risk of birth defects, speech delay, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, etc.

Pregnant women used to be told to avoid fish because nearly all fish contain some mercury, and babies exposed to mercury in the womb can be born with brain damage.

“Seafood quality has changed quite a bit. Omega 3 fatty acids are very good for you, but farm-raised fish are fed corn, so you are not getting the benefits, and most shrimp that you find in the grocery store today is farmed,” warns Adams.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises, “Limit your exposure to mercury by not eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish. Limit eating white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week. Be sure to eat at least 8–12 ounces of low-mercury fish and shellfish per week.”

Pregnant women should also be wary of bottled water. Willhite cautions, “Water bottles sit on trucks during transport and can be exposed to high temperatures. The chemicals released from the plastic in this case can cause health problems.” also makes the following recommendations:

• Don’t use plastic containers with the numbers 3 or 7 or the letters PC on the bottom. PC stands for a chemical called polycarbonate. Plastics with the numbers 1, 2, and 4 are safe to use. Use glass containers instead of plastic.

• Don’t re-use single-use plastics. These are plastics that are meant to be used once and then thrown away, like shopping bags, water bottles, coffee cups, and straws. If you re-use them, they can break down and release chemicals. Instead, use cloth shopping bags, glass bottles or cups and paper straws.

Avoid toxins

Avoiding toxic metals, such as mercury and lead, is critical, says Willhite.

Mercury is found in fish, light bulbs, thermometers, dental fillings, and can be released from burning waste and coal products. Lead is found in paints and dust in older homes, auto refinishing materials, soil, some personal care products, tap water, etc. Exposure to pesticides is also dangerous to the fetus. These toxins can damage the body’s ability to methylate DNA, which is why the folic acid supplements are so important.

“Studies have shown that exposure to endocrine disruptors during pregnancy is linked to autism,” Adams warns.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states, “Endocrine disruptors may be found in many everyday products — including plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides.”

It’s difficult to guarantee zero exposure to toxic metals or products considered to be endocrine disruptors, so women should do everything they can to boost their body’s natural defenses.

Adams explains that glutathione, which is an important antioxidant, removes toxic metals in the body before they can reach the developing baby. Several foods boost glutathione levels. Sulfur-containing vegetables (e.g. kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.), raw goat whey, and some spices, such as rosemary, help boost glutathione levels.

Reduce stress

Dr. Barbara Held, who specializes in both routine and high-risk obstetrics and gynecology at Houston Methodist Hospital, counsels, “Everyone has stress in their life. However, it is the significant, chronic stress that can produce detrimental effects on a pregnancy, such as small birth weight and preterm delivery.”

She also adds that a recent study showed that stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which can have detrimental neuro developmental effects on a pregnancy.

“A lot of stress early in the pregnancy increases risk of miscarriage,” Adams reports. “Stress later in pregnancy is associated with lower birth weights, higher risk of anxiety disorders, and permanent changes in the child’s brain.”

Dr. Michael Cackovic, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center cautions, “The problem with trying to establish stress as a cause of adverse pregnancy outcomes is that there are often [additional variables] associated with stress, such as smoking, illicit drug use, and poor nutrition, to name a few. Much of the research on the effects of stress on reproduction used experimental animals subjected to physical stressors, including noise, restraint, heat, or food deprivation. It is not clear that these stressors adequately model human psychological stress.”

However, he points out that in addition to low birth weight and premature delivery, some reports have associated stress with an increased risk of congenital anomalies involving cranial neural crest-derived tissues. (“Cranial neural crest cells contribute to much of the bone, cartilage, and connective tissue in the head, including most of the head skeleton and parts of the teeth,” writes H.M. Young in the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience.)

Women should practice healthy ways to combat stress.

“Yoga, massage therapy, and getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours per night) all help to lower stress levels,” explains Adams.

Held suggests that women speak with their obstetricians to decide on a specific plan to reduce daily stress. A plan might include exercise, yoga, meditation, psychotherapy, improving eating and sleep habits, or medication, if necessary.

Myrna Beth Haskell is an award-winning author, columnist, and feature writer ( She is also co-founder of SANCTUARY (

More reading

Here are some additional resources women planning to get pregnant should check out:

Healthy Child Guide: This is a Neurological Health Foundation publication based on a wealth of research and clinical experience. It is a must-read for moms-to-be. This guide provides a step-by-step plan that women and their partners can follow to improve their chances of having a healthy child.

Food Safety for Pregnant Women:

Avoiding Toxic Exposure During Pregnancy: Autism Speaks

Stress and Pregnancy: March of Dimes

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