We’ve heard this before, and a new report confirms it: the United States Preventive Service Task Force recommends a daily supplement of folic acid for women looking to get pregnant.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) birth defects affect about 3% of babies born annually in the US and remain the leading cause of death among infants.
Neural tube defects (NTDs) are a common form of birth defect that occur during pregnancy and affect the baby’s spine and brain. Abnormalities can develop early in the formation of the embryo, as soon as the neural tube – which normally becomes the spinal cord, spinal column, and brain – is formed.
Folic acid can prevent NTDs if administered just before and during the early stages of pregnancy. The CDC reports that since the Food and Drug Administration introduced folic acid fortification in some foods back in 1998, more than 1300 potential cases of NTD have been avoided every year. In 2009, the Task Force began recommending supplementary folic acid for every woman of childbearing age. That recommendation still stands as the Task Force updates earlier guidelines.
Published in JAMA, the new report looks at emerging evidence on the health benefits and potential harms of a daily supplement of folic acid.
Folic acid is found naturally in plant foods such as dark green leafy vegetables – spinach, broccoli, and asparagus, in beans and legumes, and in citrus fruits. While these foods are high in folic acid content, studies indicate that most women do not get the recommended daily dose exclusively through their diet.
Women should receive at least 400 micrograms of folate per day. An acceptable supplement will deliver 400-800 micrograms.
Most NTDs develop in the first month of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. That’s why the supplement is recommended for all women of childbearing years. Common risk factors for NTDs include diabetes and obesity, and sometimes mutations in the enzymes responsible for metabolizing folate. There are other factors researchers are still exploring, including NTD prevalence that may vary according to race and ethnicity. Additional research is looking into recommended dosages that reflect on those circumstances.
Overall, the updated guidelines conclude that the benefits of taking a folic acid supplement are substantial, thus the repeated issuing of the highest Grade A recommendation.