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The Relationship Between Birth Defects and Folic Acid

The Relationship Between Birth Defects and Folic Acid

Sep 30, 2020

If you’re pregnant or actively trying to conceive, then you’ve likely heard of folic acid, and the importance of maintaining a steady intake of it. But what is folic acid, and why is it so important, particularly during pregnancy?

A Pregnant woman contemplating Folic Acid

Folic acid is a synthetic version of folate, a type of B vitamin key in helping your body produce and maintain new cells. This is particularly critical during pregnancy, because your body is hard at work creating cells for itself and the baby. Ensuring that you have ample levels of folic acid can help your baby avoid developing a birth defect of the brain or spine.

“One of the most important things a pregnant woman can do to help prevent serious birth defects in your baby is making sure you get enough folic acid every day,” explains Haytham Hamwi, M.D., a Nemours pediatrician and pediatric hospitalist for the pediatric inpatient unit and pediatric ED as well as the maternity center at Inspira Medical Center in Mullica Hill. “Folic acid is very, very important especially before conception and during early pregnancy.”

So, how do we get folate and folic acid? If you maintain a healthy diet, you’re in luck. Foods like oranges, beans, spinach and asparagus all contain naturally high levels of folate. In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed regulations requiring food production companies to begin adding folic acid to products such as cold cereal, pasta, cookies and crackers. So, you likely consume more folic acid than you’re aware of.

To best prevent birth defects caused by a lack of folic acid, it’s recommended that women take a daily vitamin containing 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid.

Birth defects of the brain and spine form within the first two to three weeks of pregnancy. As many as half of pregnancies in America are unintended, and most women don’t know they’re pregnant at week three, which is why it’s important to maintain sufficient folic acid in the body at all times.

The two primary birth disorders that folic acid helps prevent are anencephaly and spina bifida, which affect the brain and the spine, respectively. Anencephaly is where parts of a baby’s brain and skull don’t develop in the womb and is a disorder that is fatal very shortly after birth.

Spina bifida affects the spinal cord and can lead to a wide range of intellectual and physical disabilities.

The severity of spina bifida—and the symptoms that accompany it— vary depending on multiple factors. These factors include the size and location of the defect, whether or not there is skin covering the defect and what spinal nerves come out of the affected area.

Some of the most common complications that come about because of spina bifida include mobility problems, bowel and bladder problems and latex allergy. While some complications can require constant care and treatment throughout life, many people who live with spina bifida go on to live long and otherwise healthy lives.

Nemours pediatricians provide 24/7 care to infants and children at Inspira’s Medical Centers in Vineland and Mullica Hill. Call 888-31-BIRTH to request an appointment with an OB/GYN or midwife for maternity care.

Topics: Maternity