Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Importance of Folic Acid for Women of Childbearing Age

Folic acid, which is sometimes referred to as folate, is one of the B-complex vitamins (B9 to be exact) and it is found in such foods as leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale, enriched grains and orange juice. Folic acid can also be taken as a supplement. Research has shown the tremendous importance for all women of childbearing age to consume enough folic acid in their daily diet both in the months before they attempt to get pregnant (approximately three to four months preceding) as well as during the early stages of pregnancy. Repeated studies into the effect of folic acid when it comes to preventing neural tube defects in developing babies has yielded the result that women who consume 400 micrograms (which is 0.4 milligrams) daily decrease the risk of their babies developing these serious diseases by up to 70 to 80 percent.

What does folic acid do for the body?

Folic acid allows for the creation of new cells in the human body on a regular basis. To use examples, folic acid manufactures new cells for the nails, hair and skin. The more you have in your body, the quicker it can work to replace a damaged nail or strands of hair that have fallen out. Folic acid is instrumental in preventing neural birth defects (NTDs) in developing fetuses as well. In fact this is one of its most essential functions. The two most widespread of all neural birth defects are spina bifida and anencephaly. Both of these serious health conditions can cause health problems and lifetime disabilities for the individual and in many cases they can prove fatal.

The neural tube of a developing fetus

A developing fetus’ neural tube is the precursor to its brain and spine. Neural tube defects happen when the neural tube does not grow properly and the result is that the brain and/or the spine sustain damage. This damage can be very minor or it can be moderate to extremely serious. The quality of life of the individual upon birth will be affected regardless of how bad the damage is. However more serious cases have more severe outcomes. Problems with the growth of the baby’s neural tube are irreversible once they begin and it is an unfortunate reality that often this is taking place in the first few weeks after conception but before a woman is even aware that she has become pregnant. This is why consuming adequate amounts of folic acid in anticipation of future pregnancy is so important.

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida is a neural tube defect (NTD) that can easily be prevented by consuming the required amounts of folic acid on a daily basis. Folic acid is necessary for all men, women and children but it is especially necessary for women who wish to give birth to healthy babies. Spina bifida is a disease that takes place when both the spine and the various bones of the back do not fuse together and close up as nature intended them to do. When they do not fuse properly, a sac of fluid forms through an opening in the fetus’s spine instead. In the majority of cases, a large percentage of the infant’s spine is damaged because it is encased in the sac filled with fluid. As mentioned previously, spina bifida can range from mild to more moderate or downright severe. With lots of special care and attention, a child born with spina bifida can manage to live as long and as successful a life as a person who was not born with such a problem. However a spina bifida child will always have special needs and very likely will require a number of surgeries throughout his or her lifetime.

What is anencephaly?

Unlike spina bifida, anencephaly is always fatal. This neural tube defect occurs when both the bones that make up the skull as well as the brain does not develop as they were supposed to. Anencephaly means that either all or portions of the brain are not in evidence and the same thing is true of the skull bones. Many women who are carrying fetuses that suffer from anencephaly do not carry their babies to term, as miscarriages in the first and second trimesters are very common. For those babies who suffer from anencephaly and are carried to term, the great majority succumbs to the disease shortly after birth. While spina bifida and anencephaly sometimes come about for other reasons besides lack of folic acid, in most incidences both diseases can easily be prevented if women who wish to become pregnant begin taking in extra amounts of folic acid either through dietary means or by way of supplements at least three to four months before they begin trying to get pregnant.

Dietary sources of folic acid

Folic acid is a vitamin that can be found in many foods however it is generally believed that foods alone cannot adequately fulfill a woman’s recommended daily allowance. It is strongly recommended to all women between the ages of 19 and 45 years of age to eat foods rich in folic acid and to also take a folic acid supplement daily that is equal to 400 micrograms per day (which is 0.4 mg). Folic acid can be found in foods such as a number of vegetables (broccoli, spinach, asparagus, kale, and romaine lettuce), lentils, legumes, black beans, fruits (such as apples and oranges), as well as orange juice (choose orange juice from concentrate), peanuts, milk, fortified grains such as pasta, rice, enriched breads and flours and fortified breakfast cereals such as Kellogg’s All-Bran, Kellogg’s Special K and Quaker Oats Honey Nut Oats among others. When it comes to shopping for a breakfast cereal rich in folic acid, look for one that states on the package that it contains “One hundred percent daily value (sometimes abbreviated to “DV”) of folic acid in one serving.” The DV is the quantity of a vitamin or a mineral that it is necessary for an individual to take in on a daily basis. It is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States that determines daily values of vitamins and minerals for specific groups of people.

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