Folic acid may prevent neural tube defects

Pamela Egan Practical Practitioner

By: Pamela Egan, FNP-C CDE

Folic acid may help prevent neural tube defects

Dear Pam,

My husband and I are planning to have a baby. Should I get on Prenatal Vitamins now or wait until the Pregnancy test is confirmed?

Yours is a very good question. When the opportunity presents itself, Prenatal Counseling with your obstetrician is the ideal! By all means get on Prenatal vitamins now! The first few weeks of pregnancy are the most critical. Vitamin deficiencies such as a Folic Acid deficiency can lead to neural tube defects.

A Neural Tube Defect (NTD) is a birth defect occurring in the brain or spinal cord (backbone). NTD’s are among the most common of all serious birth defects. The neural tube is the part of the fetus that becomes the spinal cord. The two major types of NTD’s are anencephaly and spina bifida. Anencephaly is the partial or complete absence of the baby’s brain. Most of these babies die soon after birth.

Neural Tube Defects

Spina bifida occurs when there is an opening of the spine. These babies need to have surgery soon after their birth to close the spine and prevent further damage. They may also need a shunt or drain to prevent a build-up of spinal fluid in the brain called hydrocephalus. Babies with spina bifida lack feeling in their legs and later develop problems with walking. In addition, these children may have problems with bowel and bladder control. They may also have learning problems, and some have mental retardation.

In the United States about 2,500 babies are born each year with NTD’s, about six in every 10,000 live births.

Studies have shown that the following people are at an increased risk of having an NTD affected pregnancy:

  • – Caucasians with English or Irish ancestry
    – People who do not eat well-balanced diets
    – Cigarette smokers
    – Alcohol and drug users
    – Couples who have already had other NTD affected pregnancies
    – Women who have low folic acid levels before they become pregnant and during the earliest weeks of pregnancy

How can a NTD pregnancy be prevented?

Recent studies have shown that women who take the b-vitamin Folic Acid, before pregnancy and during the first two months of pregnancy can reduce the risk of serious birth defects of the brain and spinal cord.

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Folic acid is considered a brain food, is needed for energy production and the formation of red blood cells. Functioning as a coenzyme in DNA synthesis, it is important for healthy cell division and replication. It is involved in protein metabolism and has been used in the prevention and treatment of folic acid anemia. This nutrient may also help depression and anxiety and may be effective in the treatment of pre-cancerous cervical cells in the uterus. Folic acid helps regulate fetal development of nerve cells, vital for normal growth and development. Folic acid works best when combined with vitamin B12. A sore red tongue is one sign of a deficiency.

The following foods are high in folic acid: peas; corn; dried beans; dark, green leafy vegetables; white and whole wheat breads; beef liver and lean beef; bananas; fortified breakfast cereals; and orange juice.

The Centers for Disease Control have made the following recommendations for all women of childbearing age:

  • – Take a daily multivitamin pill containing 0.4mg of folic acid.
  • – Do not take more than one multivitamin pill without discussing with your healthcare provider.
  • – If you become pregnant, continue the multivitamin pill with folic acid until your first pregnancy exam.

A blood test given during pregnancy is able to detect NTD’s. This blood test is called Maternal Serum Alpha-fetoprotein (MSAFP) and is now available for all women at 16 weeks of pregnancy.

The National Council on Folic Acid was formed to reduce birth defects by promoting the consumption of folic acid among reproductive-age women.

This article was originally published April 29, 2002 in The St. Tammany News.

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