Nearly half of neural tube and other birth defects can be prevented if women planning to conceive or pregnant would take folic acid supplements.
Neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spinal bifida, are birth defects that affect the brain and spinal cord.
In an effort to reduce the number of NTDs, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC) and the Hospital for Sick Children have released new recommendations for taking folic acid before and after conception.
This new report targets mothers who are at high risk for folic acid deficiency - those who are smokers, obese, diabetic or who have a history of NTDs in their family.
High risk mothers are encouraged to take five milligrams of folic acid every day, starting at three months before conception. (The previous recommendation was one milligram of folic acid per day for all pregnant women.)
This increased level of folic acid intake should continue during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to ensure proper development of the baby's neural tube.
After the first trimester, all mothers should supplement 0.4 to 1 milligram of folic acid each day and continue for the duration of breastfeeding. The amount of supplementation varies based on how much folic acid the woman gets from her diet.
Food sources of folic acid include leafy green vegetables ("foliage"), black-eyed peas, lentils, pinto beans, braised calf liver, asparagus, broccoli, orange juice and some fortified cereals.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that aids in the rapid growth and repair of new cells, particular those that will develop into the brain stem and spinal cord very early on in a pregnancy.
Experts at SOGC warned that many women start folic acid supplementation "too late to reap the full protective benefit" because they weren't aware of the pregnancy.
Recent studies have also linked folic acid to prevention of common congenital heart defects, urinary tract disorders, facial clefts, limb abnormalities and some early childhood cancers.
Planning a pregnancy or already expecting? You may wish to consult a dietitian to determine what level of folic acid supplementation is right for you.For more information on the benefits of folic acid, check out how this vitamin could prevent miscarriage.
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