"Folic acid." P regnant women will surely hear their doctors say these two words when receiving guidance on how to best care for themselves and their unborn babies. However, folic acid is an important part of a woman’s diet whether she is pregnant or not.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that is used by our bodies to make new cells. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women of child bearing age (~ age 16-44) should consume 0.4 mg of folic acid a day regardless of whether they plan on having a baby or not in the near future.
Since half of the pregnancies in the United States aren't planned, and congenital spinal cord and brain defects start developing even before women know they're pregnant, it is important for all women to take folic acid. If a woman takes folic acid once she learns she’s pregnant, it doesn't optimally prevent neural tube defects (NTDs). Taking folic acid is more effective if women start taking it one month before and up to three months after pregnancy.
When a baby is born with some type of spinal cord or brain defect, the entire family's life changes radically. This occurs more frequently than many people think. Each year in the United States, thousands of babies die as a result of serious NTDs in the spinal cord (spina bifida) and in the brain (anencephaly).
The CDC indicates that between 50 and 75% of NTD cases could have been prevented if the mother had consumed enough folic acid before and even after pregnancy.
Babies with anencephaly typically die before they are born or right after birth. Babies with spina bifida are affected differently, depending on the severity. In general, children with spina bifida have learning problems and require some type of assistance to help them move around.
It's important to understand that the best way to reduce the possibilities of your baby being born with a congenital defect is by consuming the B vitamin, folic acid. It's not easy to consume the amount of folic acid the body needs. In addition to eating foods that are naturally rich in folic acid, you can also get folic acid by eating fortified foods (such as breakfast cereals) or by taking a multivitamin containing folic acid. Be sure to read the food labels so that you know how much the food contains per serving.
Source: Centers for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/
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