Every woman who has thought about having a baby dreams of the perfect baby with ten baby fingers and ten baby toes. In that dream, their beautiful baby coos and smiles with adoring eyes. To assist in making that dream come true, women of child bearing age should take special care to consume the appropriate nutrients.

One of these nutrients is known as folic acid. Folic acid, or folate, is the B9 vitamin that helps prevent brain and spinal cord birth defects when taken prior to conception and during pregnancy.

Folic acid is essential in preventing neural tube defects in fetuses. Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) are the most common serious birth defects affecting nearly one in 1,000 births in the United States. The neural tube is the part of the fetus that develops into the spinal cord and brain in the first four weeks of pregnancy.

There are two types of NTDs that most commonly affect fetuses. The first, spina bifida, is one of the most devastating birth defects. Spina Bifida is caused when the spine fails to close properly during the early weeks of pregnancy. In the most severe cases, the spinal cord may protrude though the back with only skin or a thin membrane covering it. Infants born with spina bifida often undergo surgery in the first twenty four hours of life to close the back in efforts to prevent infection and inhibit further deterioration of the spinal chord functions. Spina bifida can mean extensive surgeries and medical care, bowel and bladder complications, and death.

The second most common NTD is anencephaly, where the neural tube again does not complete closure. Instead of causing a spinal cord defect, anencephaly causes the fetus to continue developing without the top portion of the skull. Very few ancencephalic pregnancies result in a live birth. Those who do reach term are born without the upper cranium and scalp, thereby leaving the newborns brain exposed. Infants born with anencephaly may live for a few minutes or as many as a few weeks.

Consuming the appropriate amounts of folic acid lowers the risk of NTDs by up to seventy per cent. Sufficient folic acid intake is most important at least one month before conception and through the first trimester. Pregnant women should be getting about 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid on a daily basis.

Folic acid can be found in citrus fruit and juices, bananas, beef liver, lean beef, fortified grain products, dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, dried beans and peas, chicken liver, lentils, wheat germ, asparagus, papaya, broccoli, cantaloupe, eggs, canned salmon and most berries. The FDA ordered that folic acid be added to enriched grain products such as breads, pastas, breakfast cereals, and rice. To reach the recommended daily amount, pregnant women or those trying to conceive should supplement with a prenatal vitamin. Your health care provider may prescribe a separate folic acid supplement to take in addition to prenatal vitamins.

In addition to aiding in the prevention of neural tube defects, folic acid has several other benefits. This water-soluble vitamin helps pregnant women to create the needed additional blood cells. It also plays an essential part in the in other developments of the fetus and placenta. Folic acid is needed in the production of the fetus DNA. According to one study, folic acid deficiencies could possibly be a risk factor for repeat miscarriages, premature infants, and infants with a low birth weight of under five and a half pounds.

If you are affected by diabetes, epilepsy, obesity, or have had a previous pregnancy resulting in a child born with an NTD, you should discuss the appropriate folic acid amounts for your condition with your primary healthcare physician. She may choose to increase folic acid intake to accommodate the health issues as these conditions raise the possibility of having a pregnancy resulting in an NTD.

Some medications can deplete folic acid in your system. These medications include aspirin, barbiturates, corticosteroids, NSAIDS, oral contraceptives, primidone, choline magnesium and salisylates. Most of these medications are not safe during pregnancy, but if you are taking any you should definitely discuss any conception plans with your doctor.

Happy baby dreams!

Why is folic acid important when trying to conceive and during pregnancy?