If a magician could give women a miracle pill to almost guarantee the prevention of some serious birth defects during pregnancy, we’d be crazy not to line up with palms outstretched. Fortunately, this “miracle pill” exists and is readily available to all women here and now.
Folic acid, a B vitamin that can be taken in pill form or obtained through diet, helps our bodies generate new cells and can help prevent major neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, which affect a baby’s spine or brain. Around 3,000 babies are born annually with one or the other of these conditions, some of which could have potentially been prevented with folic acid. Additionally, researchers say 1,300 more babies are born healthy each year due to folic acid fortification.
Jessica Brown, M.D., OB/GYN and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial, explains the importance of folic acid as she describes it to patients.
“Folic acid supplementation is important for the prevention of neural tube defects,” she says. “The neural tube is the embryologic structure that becomes the brain and the spinal cord. Defects in this structure can lead to birth defects like spina bifida and anencephaly (abnormal development of the brain and skull).
“I recommend that all reproductive-age women consume at least 400 mcg of folic acid daily. Almost half of pregnancies are unintended and neural tube defects often occur prior to a woman becoming aware of her pregnancy. For women who are seeking pregnancy, they should consume at least 400–800 mcg of folic acid from vitamins and/or food sources.”
Folic acid is beneficial for all women, as it contributes to healthy skin, hair and nails. Also, since folic acid must be at optimum levels in a woman’s body a month before she becomes pregnant, it’s smart for all women of childbearing age to ensure they’re getting enough of the vitamin.
Neural tube defects occur during the first few weeks of pregnancy, usually before a woman knows she is even expecting. As a result, doctors recommend women make sure they have enough folic acid daily to help prevent birth defects and miscarriage. This is especially important since half of the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.
The March of Dimes explains that some women need even more daily folic acid than the usual recommendation before and during pregnancy if they have had a previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect. Additionally, women who have diabetes, are obese (body mass index of 30+), have a hemoglobin disorder such as sickle cell disease, or take antiseizure medication may also be candidates for increased folic acid intake. Talk to your doctor if you fall in any of these categories to find out how much additional folic acid you should be taking.
So what is the best way to ensure you’re getting enough folic acid every day?
If you’re taking a multivitamin, check the label, as you might already be getting the daily recommended dose. If you aren’t, vitamins or folic acid supplement pills are the easiest way to get your 400 mcg per day.
Brown says there’s another simple way to get all the folic acid your body needs, for women who either don’t like taking pills or want to do things the more “natural” way.
“Food sources which can contribute to your daily folic acid requirement include dark leafy green vegetables, asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, beans, peas, lentils, and fortified pastas and cereals,” she explains.
In the case of fortified foods, check the labels to find out how much folic acid is in each serving. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated that food manufacturers add folic acid to packaged foods widely found in grocery stores since 1998. The label will note the presence of either folic acid or folate.
The following foods are commonly fortified with folic acid:
- Other grains
Regular consumption of folic acid seems to fluctuate among different populations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that one-third of African-American women do not get enough folic acid each day. Articles in the Journal of Nutrition and Maternal & Child Nutrition report that Hispanic/Latina women experience the highest rate of birth defects related to a lack of folic acid, due to their lower blood folate levels and a lower rate of consumption of folic acid–fortified foods. They are also less likely to know about the importance of folic acid in preventing these birth defects, and less likely to take vitamins with folic acid before becoming pregnant.
The economic impact of neural tube birth defects is shocking, with medical and surgical cost for people with spina bifida exceeding $200 million. Additionally, a family can expect to spend close to $800,000 to care for a child with spina bifida over his or her lifetime.
Read more about the CDC’s global initiative to reduce death and lifelong disability from neural tube birth defects at Birth Defects COUNT. If you are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant, talk to your Texas Health obstetrician/gynecologist about your folic acid needs.