national birth defects prevention month folic acid awareness

National Birth Defects Prevention Month Highlights the Need for Folic Acid

A topic of great importance to Advanced Neurosurgery Associates (ANA) and to all those impacted by birth defects is highlighted every January.

January honors National Birth Defects Prevention Month, where pre-pregnant and pregnant women are encouraged to plan ahead with healthy habits to prevent birth defects.

One tip includes taking a daily intake of folic acid. Folic acid prevents neural tube defects, increasing a woman’s chances of having a healthy baby.

The awareness campaign coincides with National Folic Acid Awareness Week, which usually kicks off in the first full week of January each year (3–9 January in 2022).

Folic acid is a B vitamin and plays an important role in many metabolisms. The developing unborn child needs it to grow cells, tissue and organs. If a woman consumes the recommended amount of folic acid before and during early pregnancy, it can help prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain (known as anencephaly) and spine (known as spina bifida).

Anencephaly is a serious birth defect in which parts of a baby’s brain and skull do not form correctly. Babies born with anencephaly cannot survive. Spina bifida is a serious birth defect in which a baby’s spine does not develop correctly, resulting in potentially severe physical disabilities. There are different degrees of spina bifida, some affecting leg movement, bowel/bladder changes, and/or hydrocephalus which requires a shunt.

Neural Tube Defects

Congenital disorders (neural tube defects) are physical abnormalities that are present at birth. Complex birth defects of children born in the United States are a major cause of death and illness among newborns. Here are some facts to consider:

  • In the United States, 3,000 annual pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects.
  • Worldwide, there are more than 300,000 babies born with neural tube defects every year.
  • On American soil, Hispanic women have higher rates of neural tube defects than non-Hispanic women.*
  • The lifetime cost of care for a child born in the United States with spina bifida is estimated to be $792,000.

In addition to preventing neural tube defects, Folic acid benefits have also been shown to extend to:

  • Cleft lip and palate
  • Premature birth (one study showed 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
  • Pregnancy complications (one report found that women who took folic acid supplements during the second trimester had a reduced risk of preeclampsia)

Sufficient folic acid intake has also been linked to a potentially decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease.

How Much Folic Acid Is Needed?

All women, but especially those who want to become pregnant, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends 400-800 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Prenatal vitamins and select multivitamins contain folic acid as well as food sources.

Some women may need more if they are on certain drugs such as anti-epileptics and antibiotics, as these medications can decrease absorption of folic acid or lower blood levels of the vitamin. People on these drugs may need one to two milligrams of the supplement daily prior to and during pregnancy. This should be discussed with the obstetrician prior to pregnancy.

In addition to getting folic acid from supplements and fortified foods, you can eat a diet rich in folic acid foods. You can get food folate (Vitamin B9) from such sources as:

  • Asparagus and broccoli
  • Avocados
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Dark leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and mustard greens
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Oranges and orange juice
  • Peas and lentils
  • Romaine lettuce

At ANA, we treat pediatric patients suffering from various brain and spine conditions, including those neural tube defects that have been shown to be greatly impacted by folic acid. That’s why we advocate strongly for public awareness and preventive health measures whenever and however possible.

*A quarter of all U.S. babies are now born to Hispanic mothers, who have a 20 percent increased risk of neural tube defects. Fortifying corn masa flour with folic acid could prevent an average of 40 neural tube defects a year in Hispanic women and perhaps as many as 120 nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of this writing, the Food and Drug Administration will now move ahead with a review of a long-delayed petition to add folic acid to corn masa flour.