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Folic Acid Helps Prevent Birth Defects

By Catherine Ruhl, CNM, MS

Folic Acid Helps Prevent Birth Defects

As you contemplate having a baby, you should know you need adequate levels of folic acid in your body both before and during your pregnancy. Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps the body make new cells. By having folic acid in your body before and during the first month or so of pregnancy, you slash your risks of having a baby with a serious spinal or brain birth defect.

These defects are called neural tube defects (NTD) and folic acid has been shown to prevent up to 70 percent of NTDs. Spina bifida, a type of NTD, is the most common permanently disabling birth defect diagnosed in babies in the U.S.

Folic acid throughout your pregnancy

Folic acid plays an important role during the entire nine months of pregnancy. It contributes to the growth of your baby and placenta, helps your body make the extra red blood cells you need during pregnancy and helps with production of DNA as your baby’s cells multiply.

Recent research done in Britain shows that inadequate levels of folic acid in pregnancy were associated with hyperactivity during childhood, and it’s also thought that folic acid contributes to normal brain development.

How much do you need?

All women of childbearing age should take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day through supplements or food sources. This is especially important since many pregnancies are unplanned and NTDs often form in the earliest days of pregnancy, long before you may even miss a period and suspect your pregnant. Having folic acid in your daily diet promotes normal development of the brain and spine, which occurs in the first month of pregnancy.

When you’re pregnant, the easiest way to make sure you are getting enough folic acid is by taking a prenatal vitamin. Prenatal vitamins generally contain between 400 to 1,000 micrograms of folic acid which will meet most women’s requirement in pregnancy. The folic acid in a vitamin supplement is better absorbed by the body than the folic acid that occurs naturally in food, which is called folate.

Foods such as leafy greens, dried beans and oranges contain folate but only about 50 percent of this folate is absorbed by the body. Foods fortified with folic acid, such as grains, breads and cereals are also a good choice and this added folic acid is better absorbed than folate. But read the labels. While some breakfast cereals contain the recommended daily 400 micrograms of folic acid in one serving many contain only 100 micrograms.


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