Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord when taken very early in pregnancy.
Birth defects of a baby’s brain and spinal cord happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant. It is during this time that the neural tube is developing into the brain and spinal cord. When the neural tube does not close properly, serious birth defects called neural tube defects (NTD) can result. Two of the most common NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly.
Spina bifida occurs when the spine and back bones do not close all the way. When this happens, the spinal cord and back bones do not form as they should. A sac of fluid comes through an opening in the baby’s back. Much of the time, part of the spinal cord is in this sac and it is damaged. Most children born with spina bifida live full lives, but they often have lifelong disabilities and need many surgeries. Some of their problems include:
Not being able to move lower parts of their body. (Some might need to use crutches, braces or wheelchairs to get around.)
Loss of bowel and bladder control. (Some might have to wear protective clothing. Others learn new ways to empty their bladders and bowels.)
Fluid building up and putting pressure on the brain (hydrocephalus), which needs to be fixed with an operation.
Allergy to latex (a created material found in some rubber-type products such as balloons or hospital gloves).
Children born with spina bifida don’t all have the same needs. Some children’s problems are much more severe than others. Even so, with the right care, most of these children will grow up to lead full and productive lives.
Anencephaly occurs when the brain and skull bones do not form right. When this happens, part or all of the brain and skull bones might be missing. Babies with this defect die before birth (miscarriage) or shortly after birth.
About 3,000 pregnancies are affected each year. If all women took adequate folic acid before conception, up to 70 percent of NTDs could be prevented.
A naturally occurring vitamin, folic acid, can be found in foods like cereals, such as Total and Crispix, lentils, spinach, black beans, peanuts, orange juice, enriched breads, romaine lettuce and broccoli. Eating these foods is one way to get the recommended 400 micrograms daily. Taking a multi-vitamin containing folic acid is another way. It is recommended that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid every day.
In recent years, evidence has shown folic acid to be important for everyone in maintaining health. Studies are suggesting that folic acid may help prevent heart disease, stroke, colon and breast cancer.
For more information about folic acid, contact the Marion County Public Health Department at (317) 221-2317.