Over the past couple years, the Zika virus has stolen the spotlight from other concerns that newly pregnant women may have. As they worry that Zika infection can increase their risk for bearing a child with birth defects such as microcephaly, they may be interested to know that a certain dietary deficiency also can elevate the risk for birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (NTDs).
That critical preventive nutrient is vitamin B-9 or folic acid.
The body needs folic acid every day to support new cell development. However, it becomes even more critical for pregnant women, because they are experiencing accelerated cell growth. Folic acid is found naturally in foods such as dark, leafy green vegetables, beans, peas, citrus fruits, and even broccoli or asparagus. However many Americans do not consume enough of these foods, and more than half of natural folic acid is destroyed by cooking. Because folic acid is water soluble, the body uses it quickly and it needs to be replenished every day. That’s why folic acid is widely available as a dietary supplement. In fact, as a public health precaution, our government requires that cereal and other grain products be fortified with folic acid.
About 3,000 babies are born with NTDs every year in the United States. NTDs generally develop in the earliest weeks of pregnancy, before a woman may even realize she is pregnant. That’s why all healthy women aged 15-45 years old already should be taking folic acid daily to prevent NTDs in the event of an unplanned pregnancy. Physicians recommend that women take a daily multivitamin that contains at least 400 mcg of folic acid. Pregnant women should increase their daily folic acid to at least 800 mcg. Most prenatal vitamins should contain between 800 and 1,000 mcg of folic acid. Don’t exceed 1,000 mcg unless your OB/GYN orders it.
January 7-13 is Folic Acid Awareness Week. The best (and most simple) treatment of NTDs is prevention. Women should read the label on their multivitamins. If they don’t have 400 mcg of folic acid, they should ask their healthcare provider to recommend a supplement.