This week, January 7th to 13th, is National Folic Acid Awareness Week in the US, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has taken the opportunity to urge and remind all women of child bearing age to to make sure they take in 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid a day.

Folic Acid is a B vitamin that helps to prevent birth defects. Women who have enough folic acid in their bodies before they get pregnant, and get enough while they are carrying the baby, minimize the risk that their child will have a birth defect of the brain or spine. According to the National Council on Folic Acid, up to 70 per cent of some forms of birth defects can be prevented in this way.

Because pregnancy can sometimes be unexpected, the CDC is urging all women of childbearing age to get their daily 400 mcg of folic acid.

Folic acid is essential for making new cells, and the cells of the neural tube are especially hungry for it in the early growth of the foetus. The neural tube is the precursor to the spinal cord and brain. Before the foetus looks human it looks like a small tadpole, with the neural tube at its core, showing a thick end at the “head”, and gradually tapering to the “tail” end.

As the foetus develops and begins to look more human, so the neural tube differentiates into more specialized areas, separating into the brain and the spinal cord, and the rich complexity of different types of nerve cells and brain and spinal tissue. Having folic acid readily available significantly increases the chance that cell division and specialization will proceed correctly.

If there is not enough folic acid, a condition called neural tube defects or NTDs, with varying degrees of impairment, results. Spina bifida is one example of an NTD, where the tail part of the neural tube fails to close after a crucial stage of development around the fourth week of gestation. Another is anencephaly, a fatal condition that results when the head end of the neural tube (that becomes the brain) does not close properly.

The CDC recommends a number of ways that women can get their daily 400 mcg of folic acid easily:

  • Take a basic daily multivitamin supplement that includes folic acid.
  • Take a single supplement of folic acid every day.
  • Eat fortified breakfast cereals.

With vitamins and fortified cereals, read the label to find out how much of your daily value (DV) is included. Most folic acid and multivitamin pills sold in the US have 100 per cent of the daily value of folic acid. Most store brands of multivitamins are suitable, said the CDC. Unless your doctor says otherwise, you shouldn’t need a special type of multivitamin. With fortified cereals, choose one that says 100 per cent next to the folic acid daily value (DV).

All women of childbearing age should get into the habit of taking folic acid every day, said the CDC, because for folic acid to be effective, there needs to be a plentiful supply well before conception. And sometimes pregnancy is unexpected, or women do not realise they are pregnant until several weeks later, by which time the crucial development phase for the brain and spinal cord of the foetus has passed.

To help you remember to take your vitamin or folic acid every day, try doing it:

  • With your morning coffee.
  • When you brush your teeth.
  • After your daily bath or shower.
  • When you brush your hair or do your daily grooming.
  • When your children or other family members take their vitamins.

Keep the vitamin bottle where you see it every day, such as a kitchen cupboard or bathroom cabinet, also helps.

As with all tablets, make sure you keep the bottle out of reach of children and that it has a childproof cap.

According to the National Council on Folic Acid, it is possible for women to get their recommended daily dose through foods, but it is not easy. One reason is that the body absorbs the synthetic form more easily than the naturally occuring form, called “folate“.

Scientists have also discovered links between folic acid deficiency and other birth defects, such as cleft lip and cleft palate, said the Council, who also suggest other health benefits linked to folic acid such as reduced cardiovascular disease and cancers of the colon, cervix and breast.

By protecting neurons important for learning and memory, folic acid may also help to prevent Alzheimer’s, and new research suggests its deficiency may make people more susceptible to Parkinson’s said the Council.

Click here for more information on Folic Acid and Birth Defects (CDC).

Sources: CDC Folic Acid Awareness Week literature, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, National Council on Folic Acid.

Written by: Catharine Paddock