Up to 70% of Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) such as Spina Bifida can be prevented if all women who can become pregnant consume 0.4 mg/day of folic acid at least a month prior to conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that is used by the body to manufacture DNA. DNA is required for rapid cell division and organ/tissue formation in the developing baby.
Folic acid can only help prevent NTDs during the first weeks of pregnancy, usually before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. In fact, since 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, all women who are sexually active and of child-bearing age should consume folic acid every day, even between pregnancies.
Two-thirds of women in the United States report consuming insufficient levels of folic acid.
There are three easy ways women can get enough folic acid:
Take a vitamin supplement containing 0.4 mg folic acid daily.
Eat a fortified breakfast cereal daily which contains 100% of the recommended daily amount of folic acid.
Increase consumption of foods fortified with folic acid.
Folic acid-rich foods include: fortified breakfast cereals; enriched bread, rice, pasta and other grain products; orange juice; green vegetables; and legumes such as navy beans, kidney beans, lentils and garbanzo beans. A large glass of orange juice and a bowl of fortified cereal will provide 50-100% of the recommended daily amount of folic acid.
A woman who has had prior NTD-affected pregnancy is at the highest risk for recurrence and should see a physician before planning another pregnancy. Her physicians will prescribe a higher dosage of folic acid (4 mg).
According to the CDC, the incidence of Neural Tube Defects is 1.5 to 3 times higher for Hispanic/Latina women. Also at risk are women who have maternal insulin-dependent diabetes; use anti-seizure medication; have diagnosed obesity; were exposed to high temperatures in early pregnancy (i.e., prolonged high fevers and hot-tub use); are white; and are poor.
Other potential health benefits of folic acid intake to 0.4 mg/day include reducing risks related to heart disease, stroke and some kinds of cancer.
Even in very high amounts, folic acid is nontoxic. Nevertheless, with the exception of women who have had a prior Neural Tube Defect (NTD)-affected pregnancy, it is recommended that women consume no more than 1,000 micrograms of synthetic folic acid a day. Very large amounts of folic acid may hide the ability to quickly diagnose a vitamin B12 deficiency.