Ideally, preparing for pregnancy requires a woman to make nutritional and lifestyle changes. Often, such preparation is necessary to protect her health and the health of her fetus throughout the pregnancy. Part of this preparation is making sure that she gets enough folic acid before she becomes pregnant. Why? Well, scientists recently found that, if a woman gets enough folic acid before and during pregnancy, her baby is unlikely to be born with a form of birth defect known as Neural Tube Defects (or NTDs).
NTDs are birth defects of the brain and spine, and it occurs in two forms namely spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida refers to a condition in which a baby's spinal cord is partially exposed due to incomplete closing of the spinal column. Anencephaly, on the other hand, is caused by incomplete closing of the skull, thus leaving part of the brain exposed. In United States, 2,500 to 3,000 babies are born with NTDs each year, and an estimated 1,500 pregnancies are terminated because of these defects.
All infants with anencephaly die before or shortly after birth, whereas most babies born with spina bifida grow to adulthood with varying degrees of paralysis and disability. The annual medical and surgical costs for persons with spina bifida in the United States exceed $200 million. Even worse, caring for these individuals for the rest of their lives often places families under enormous financial and emotional stress.
To help women protect their babies, the U. S. Public Health Service (USPHS) published a recommendation in 1992 requiring all women of childbearing age to consume 0.4 mg (or 400 micrograms) of folic acid EVERYDAY, even when they are not planning to become pregnant. Additionally, in 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented the Fortification Program, which requires all enriched grain products to be fortified with folic acid. The purpose of these measures is to prevent folic acid deficiency, and maximize the benefits of folic acid for all women. For example, the results of studies done before and after these measures were put in place show that the incidence of NTDs has decreased by 30 - 59%.
If a woman is not planning to become pregnant, why does she need to get at least 400 micrograms of folic acid each day? The reason is simple: NTDs occur as early in a pregnancy as 3 - 4 weeks after conception, a period when most women do not know that they are pregnant. Furthermore, about half of all pregnancies in U. S. are not planned. So, if a woman waits until she confirms her pregnancy before increasing her folic acid intake, it may be too late for her baby.
A woman can get enough folic acid by eating foods rich in folic acid. But, how can she be certain that she is getting the right amount of folic acid each day? The simple answer is that she can't be sure of the amount of folic acid she is getting from food each day. Rather than taking a chance, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) came up with a solution. The CDC made a recommendation that women should take a supplement that provides 400 micrograms of folic acid per serving per day, in addition to the amount they get from food. This way, women can be absolutely sure that they are getting at least the minimum amount of folic acid they need each day. There is no harm in getting extra folic acid from food because dietary folic acid is nontoxic.
Before you buy folic acid supplement though, take a minute to read the “supplement facts" label on the supplement bottle. First, locate folic acid on the label and then read across. If it is the right one, you will see 400 mcg under “amount per serving" and 100% under “%DV".
A woman's preparation for pregnancy should include taking a folic acid supplement or multivitamins that provides 400 micrograms of folic acid per serving per day. This intake level will help protect her fetus against Neural tube defects (or NTDs). NTDs can be fatal. A baby born with the nonfatal form will grow up with serious disabilities and unlikely to lead a normal life.
Chima Njoku is a biochemist, freelance medical writer, and publisher of free consumer friendly information on vitamins and minerals. Learn more about folic acid and neural tube defects at http://www.healthsolutionsontheweb.com/FolicAcid.html