January 8-14, the first full week of January, marks Folic Acid Awareness Week. Folic Acid Awareness Week, sponsored by the National Birth Defects Prevention Network, highlights that the CDC and the U.S. Public Health Service recommend that all women between the ages of 15 and 45 consume 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily to prevent two types of neural tube defects, spina bifida and anencephaly. We ll discuss below in this article the significance of folic acid with aim to build awareness among pregnant women’s on the need and importance of taking folic acid during and before pregnancy.

Folic acid

Folate is available in different forms such as folic acid, vitamin B9 and folacin. Folic acid is also known as Vitamin B9 or folate, it is abundant in leafy greens such as spinach and is essential for optimal brain and nerve function. Folate helps support the adrenal function, helps in maintaining a healthy nervous system, and are necessary for key metabolic processes. Folate occurs naturally in foods, while folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Folate plays an important role in the production of red blood cells and helps your baby’s neural tube develop into her brain and spinal cord. It is a key ingredient in the making of the nucleic acid that forms part of all genetic material and is also very crucial for the synthesis and repair of DNA and RNA.

Importance of Folic Acid

Every woman of reproductive age needs to get folic acid every day, whether she is planning to get pregnant or not, to help make new cells. Folic acid plays a preventive role in a range of conditions. If taken before and during early pregnancy, folic acid can prevent up to 70% of some serious birth defects of the brain and spine, called neural tube defects. Hence it is particularly important for pregnant women to consume folic acid supplement during the course of pregnancy to prevent congenital deformities in the fetus, prevents neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Neural tube defects are abnormalities that occur in the development of the spinal cord and brain of some babies. The most common defects are spina bifida (abnormal development of part of the spine and spinal cord) and anencephaly (severely abnormal development of the brain). During the first month of pregnancy, the developing embryo grows a tissue structure called the ‘neural tube’. As the embryo develops, the neural tube begins to change into a more complicated structure of bones, tissue and nerves that will eventually form the spine and nervous system. However, in cases of spina bifida, something goes wrong with the development of the neural tube and the spinal column (the ridge of bone that surrounds and protects the nerves) does not fully close. Spina bifida is a Latin term that means ‘split spine’.  Anencephaly is a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull. It is a type of neural tube defect (NTD). As the neural tube forms and closes, it helps form the baby’s brain and skull (upper part of the neural tube), spinal cord, and back bones (lower part of the neural tube). Anencephaly happens if the upper part of the neural tube does not close all the way. This often results in a baby being born without the front part of the brain (forebrain) and the thinking and coordinating part of the brain (cerebrum). The remaining parts of the brain are often not covered by bone or skin.

The chance that a pregnancy will be affected by a neural tube defect is less than one in 1,000. About 2 thirds of neural tube defects can be prevented through increasing folate (folic acid) intake at least a month before pregnancy and during the first 3 months of pregnancy. Adequate folate levels are critical during the early days of the developing embryo, particularly the 3rd and 4th week, the period in which neural tube defects occur and when many women won’t know they are pregnant. Neural tube defects may be diagnosed during the ultrasound scan that is carried out around week 12 of the pregnancy or, more likely, during the anomaly scan that is carried out at around weeks 19 to 20.You can increase your folate intake by eating folate-rich foods, including folate-fortified foods in your daily diet, or by taking a folic acid supplement.

 Since these birth defects develop within the first few weeks of pregnancy, it is important to have enough folic acid in your body before becoming pregnant and to continue getting enough folic acid during early pregnancy. In most cases pregnancy is not planned and women come to know about their pregnancy only after few weeks, these initial few weeks are very important for neural developments and hence it is imperative that women take a daily amount of 400 mcg folic acid every day.

While it’s important to take a multivitamin that contains folic acid, it’s equally important to eat foods rich in folate. Our body can’t store folate in the body since it’s a water soluble vitamin, so we need to make sure that we ingest a regular amount of the vitamin B9 to keep our levels replenished. The need for folic acid is increased by stress, smoking, use of alcohol and drugs, unhealthy dietary practices, shift work, illness, and demanding travel schedules. Some women may be advised by Doctors to take a higher dose of 5 milligrams (5mg) of folic acid each day until they’re 12 weeks pregnant if they have a higher risk of having a pregnancy affected by neural tube defects. One might be at higher risk higher risk if one of the partner have a neural tube defect or a previous history of pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect.