Folic acid and birth defects: the basics

 
By Shayna Brouker • Published: January 2nd, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat
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January is a month to start anew, refresh commitments and kick off the year with a clean slate and healthy habits. It’s also dedicated to two parts of pregnancy that go hand-in-hand: folic acid and birth defects. The first week in January is National Folic Acid Awareness Week and the entire month is Birth Defects Prevention Month. Any women looking to ring in the new year with a baby should wise up on the basics of folic acid and its ability to abate birth defects.

First things first about folate: It’s a B vitamin found naturally in foods like spinach, peas, asparagus, broccoli, strawberries, kidney beans and lentils. Folic acid is a manmade supplement found in pills, cereals or other processed foods. It’s not easy to get enough through food alone, and our bodies actually absorb the manmade form better.

Experts say women of childbearing age should take a daily supplement of 400 to 600 micrograms. Pregnant women should aim for 600 micrograms and breastfeeding moms should get about 500 micrograms a day.

But what if you’re not trying to get pregnant? Still, it’s better to err on the side of caution since many pregnancies are unplanned. And folic acid helps defend against birth defects that occur during the earliest weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she’s expecting.

The effects of not getting enough folic acid include neural tube defects, like spina bifida, which occurs when the spine does not form properly around the spinal cord. Symptoms can range from nothing at all to walking disabilities, seizures, scoliosis and fluid buildup in the brain. Babies who don’t get enough folate can also get a cleft lip or cleft palate.

Even if a baby isn’t part of your new year plan, getting enough folic acid should be. It could be the best resolution you make.