The Pill plus folic acid may reduce birth defects

December 19, 2003 in Nutrition Topics in the News, Pregnancy and Breastfeeding, Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements

The Pill plus folic acid may reduce birth defects
Adding the nutrient folic acid to an oral contraceptive may reduce certain types of birth defects, according to a U.S. advisory panel. A leading contraceptive maker wants to develop prescription-only pills that combine the two. The goal is to reduce the risks of birth defects in babies of women who become pregnant while taking birth control pills, as well as others who conceive shortly after stopping pill use. The company asserts that a combination pill may provide a convenient and effective way to reduce the number of neural tube defects, with negligible safety concerns.

An estimated 1 million U.S. women taking birth control pills become pregnant each year because they do not take the contraceptives properly. And many of them do not consume the recommended amount of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects, in which the tube that later becomes the brain and central nervous system does not close properly.

About 4,000 U.S. pregnancies per year involve a neural tube defect, experts said. The most common types are spina bifida, which causes paralysis and other disability, and anencephaly, in which the brain fails to completely form. Anencephaly is always fatal. U.S. health officials recommend women capable of becoming pregnant consume 400 micrograms of folic acid per day through supplements or diet to prevent neural tube defects. Because the neural tube closes about four weeks after conception � before many women know they are pregnant � folic acid needs to be taken before a woman conceives to be beneficial.

Members unanimously endorsed the concept of combining birth control pills with folic acid, but they said more research was needed to address various concerns. Some worried women who take folic acid supplements might get too much of the nutrient if they also took the combination pill. High doses of folic acid can mask a vitamin B deficiency, but the company argued that problem afflicts mostly the elderly and was rare among reproductive-age women.

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