Getting enough folic acid is one of the best things a woman can do for her children — even before they are conceived. Folic acid dramatically reduces the risk of giving birth to a baby with a neural tube birth defect.
Neural tube defects develop in the fetal nervous system, affecting the brain and spine. Spina bifida and anencephaly are both neural tube defects. These are grave conditions which can be severely disabling or deadly to the baby.
What is Folic Acid?
Also called folate, folic acid is vitamin B9. The value of this vitamin has been known for many years, but only in this decade have we confirmed just how crucial it is to the growth and development of a healthy baby.
Studies show you can cut your baby?s risk of neural tube defects in half if you consume enough folate. However, you need an adequate supply even before you conceive. Folic acid is most critical prior to conception and during the first six weeks of pregnancy.
Now there is evidence that folate may also be important late in pregnancy, to help prevent premature birth and low-birth-weight babies. A 1996 study found that women who consumed less than 240 micrograms (mcg.) of folic acid daily during their third trimester were at much greater risk of having pre-term or low-weight babies.
How Much Folate is Enough?
All women are advised to consume at least 400 mcg. of folic acid throughout their reproductive years. During pregnancy, the requirement doubles to 800 mcg.
Folic acid is present in many foods, such as leafy greens and certain other green vegetables, citrus fruits, dried beans and peas, whole grains and organ meats. The government now requires that folate be added to enriched grain and cereal products, such as breakfast cereals, white bread and pasta.
Given the typical American diet, you may want to take a supplement, too. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to recommend a brand or read the label. By law, products that claim to reduce risk of neural tube defects must contain at least 10 percent of the 400 mcg. daily value of folate.
Do not take more than 1,000 mcg., which equals one milligram.
But if you take a supplement, don?t skip the veggies. Foods rich in folate are foods that make up a varied, healthy diet. They are likely to contain many other nutrients — some of which we have yet to discover — that are important to the health of you and your baby.