"There's strong evidence that taking the supplement before and during pregnancy reduces the incidence of neural tube defects," says Dr. Ellen Wilson, a gynecologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center. "It may also prevent cleft lip/palate and heart abnormalities."
Each year about 3,000 babies in the United States are born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida, which is caused by the incomplete closing of the spine and skull. These birth defects typically happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy before a woman is aware she is expecting. Since half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, it is important for women of child-bearing age to get enough folic acid.
Since 1998, when grain products were first fortified with folic acid, there has been a decline in neural tube defects, Dr. Wilson says. Although folic acid also is found in breads, pasta, and green leafy vegetables, many adult females do not consume enough and may need to take a supplement. Most over-the-counter prenatal vitamins have approximately 800 mcg (one mcg is 1/1,000th of a milligram), but higher doses may be obtained by prescription.
"Women planning for pregnancy should take at least 400 mcg daily if they are low risk and 4,000 mcg daily if they have had a child with a neural tube defect or if they take medication for epilepsy," Dr. Wilson says.
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