What's The Big Deal About Folic Acid?

Every woman's little known secret is that she has the magic power to prevent birth defects before pregnancy even begins. All she has to do is take folic acid in the days before conception and throughout the early weeks of her pregnancy. You may have known enough to quit drinking and stop smoking, but did you know that taking folic acid before pregnancy begins is the most crucial step you can take to ensure you have a healthy baby?

Daily Dose

Folate, also known as folic acid, is a vitamin that is called into play during the making of DNA and for red blood cell production. Making sure to take a daily dose of this vitamin both before and during pregnancy has been shown to prevent neural tube defects. These are defects affecting the development of the baby's nervous system and his spine.

Some of the more well-known neural tube defects include anencephaly, spina bifida, and encephalocele. These defects germinate during the first 28 days of gestation. A woman often has no inkling she is pregnant during this time.

Tragic Defects

Taking folic acid prior to conception is the best way to prevent these tragic defects, especially in light of the fact that only half of all pregnancies occur by intention. For this reason, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommend that all women of childbearing age take folic acid supplements.

Folic acid is a member of the vitamin B family. To be specific, this nutrient is B9. You can find folic acid in leafy greens, enriched grains, legumes, and enriched orange juice. In 1988, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) legislated that the nutrient be added to products like pasta, cereals, and breads.

Risk Cutter

However, this may not be enough folic acid for a woman who might become pregnant. For this reason, women have been advised to up their folic acid intakes by taking prenatal vitamins in advance of gestation. Women who take 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid every day before pregnancy and during the early weeks of pregnancy can cut their risk for neural tube defects by as much as 70%.

Vitamins are not meant to take the place of good eating habits, but should be seen as a healthy addition to an already balanced diet. Prenatal vitamins can be bought over the counter (OTC) or obtained by prescription. If you've already been through a pregnancy in which there was a neural tube defect, your physician may caution you to take an even higher dose of folic acid, starting before conception, and continuing throughout your pregnancy.

You may also want to talk to your doctor about adding an iron supplement during pregnancy. Because of the body's drastically increased blood volume, iron deficiency and anemia are common in pregnant women. In addition to causing side effects like fatigue, weakness and irritability for the pregnant woman herself, iron-deficiency anemia during pregnancy is linked to an increased risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight.


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