Monday, January 7, 2013

The Importance of Folic Acid for Preventing Birth Defects

Folic acid is a critical supplement—for every woman of childbearing age...

By Michelle Koellermeier, MD

I have the great privilege of caring for women during their pregnancies and bringing new life into this world. Since January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, I thought it would be good timing to highlight one thing I stress to all patients I see of childbearing age: make sure you are taking a prenatal supplement that contains folic acid.

Only 50% of pregnancies are planned, so any woman who could become pregnant should make sure she's getting enough folic acid.

This is something I emphasize with these patients because by getting enough folic acid every day, especially before conception and during early pregnancy, a woman can help prevent serious birth defects in her baby.

Folic acid, sometimes called folate, is a B vitamin (B9) found mostly in leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach, orange juice, and enriched grains. It helps the body to produce red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

Repeated studies have shown that women who get 800 micrograms (0.8 milligrams) of folic acid daily prior to conception and during early pregnancy reduce the risk that their baby will be born with a serious neural tube defect (a birth defect involving incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord) by up to 70%.

The most common neural tube defects are:
• Spina bifida (an incomplete closure of the spinal cord and spinal column)
• Anencephaly (severe underdevelopment of the brain)
• Encephalocele (when brain tissue protrudes out to the skin from an abnormal opening in the skull)

All of these defects occur during the first 28 days of pregnancy—usually before a woman even knows she's pregnant.

Research has also found that, when taken before and during pregnancy, folic acid may also protect against other birth defects, including:
• Cleft lip and palate. In one study, women who took multivitamins, got at least 400 mcg of folic acid daily, and ate a healthy diet had the lowest risk of delivering a child with an opening in the lip (cleft lip).
• Pregnancy complications. One report found that women who took folic acid supplements during the second trimester had a reduced risk of pregnancy-induced high blood pressure—a serious condition known as preeclampsia.
• Premature birth. A study found that women who took folic acid for at least a year before getting pregnant cut their chances of delivering early by 50 percent or more.
• Low birth weight.
• Miscarriage.
• Poor growth in the womb.

Folic acid supplements are available at pharmacies and most drug stores. Folic acid is also contained within many vitamins such as One-a-Day Women’s multivitamins. Pay close attention to the dosage in each pill, however, as 800 micrograms (0.8 milligrams) of folic acid per day is recommended for women of childbearing age. It is best to talk to your doctor first about the appropriate dosage of folic acid for you, especially if you are taking other medications.

Dr. Michelle Koellermeier is an Obstetrician/Gynecologist at the Neenah location of Women’s Care of Wisconsin. Contact Dr. Koellermeier at 920-729-7105 or meet her here.

About Women’s Care of WisconsinThe providers at Women’s Care of Wisconsin are devoted to you and your health. That means having the most advanced techniques, up-to-date educational information and a compassionate, caring staff. Our providers offer a well-rounded approach to your OB/GYN care, one that meets both your physical and emotional needs throughout every phase of your life. We call it our Circle of Care. From adolescence through menopause and beyond, you can depend on us. Meet our providers and learn more about gynecology, pregnancy care, midwifery, infertility, procedures and surgery, incontinence, osteoporosis, menopause and more at