by Jennifer Vickery, NCPHC Western Region Coordinator (pictured)
Let’s face it, life can be crazy! Lots of twists and unexpected turns and with these twists and turns life often presents numerous exciting adventures. For some people these exciting adventures may include having children some point along the way. Whether you or your partner are planning to become pregnant in the coming months or years, did you know all women of childbearing age, which are roughly ages 14 through 44, are encouraged to take a daily multivitamin? Women of childbearing age should take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. This daily consumption of folic acid can greatly reduce your chances of having a baby born with a neural tube defect.
If taken before pregnancy, folic acid can prevent up to 70 percent of neural tube defects (NTDs), a group of serious birth defects including spina bifida and anencephaly. NTDs happen when the neural tube, which forms the brain and spine, fails to close properly around the fourth week of pregnancy. Often before some women are even aware they are pregnant. This can result in physical abnormalities, with varying degrees of disability, and can even be fatal. NTDs are common birth defects that occur in about 200 pregnancies each year in North Carolina.
Research suggests that folic acid may help decrease risks for birth defects of the heart, urinary tract and cleft lip/palate. Additional studies have found that folic acid may have other health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, cervical and colon cancer, and depression. Folic acid, along with many of the other vitamins in a daily multivitamin, is essential for a healthy body on the inside and out. Because folic acid is responsible for cell growth, for many people multivitamins can make a big difference in the health of your hair, nails, and skin.
A multivitamin with folic acid helps women maintain good health, whether or not they are planning a pregnancy. Two-thirds of women in the United States don’t consume enough folic acid and/or folate. Folate and folic acid are forms of a B9 vitamin. Folate occurs naturally in food, and folic acid is the synthetic form of this vitamin. Since 1998, folic acid has been added to cold cereals, flour, bread, pasta, bakery items, cookies, crackers, and nutrition bars, as required by federal law. Foods naturally high in folate include leafy green vegetables (spinach, broccoli, and lettuce), orange juice, beans (especially black-eyed peas), avocado, kiwi, cantaloupe, paprika, tahini, and arugula.
However, even if you eat healthy every day, it’s almost impossible to obtain the recommended amount of folic acid or folate from food alone. In addition, folate absorption depends on the food itself, how it is cooked and the individual’s ability to metabolize it. For example, in order to obtain your daily amount of folate from food alone, you would need to eat 14 cups of broccoli or one loaf of bread or drink an entire container of orange juice to get the proper amount of folate daily. Obviously consuming this much broccoli, bread, or orange juice would be unhealthy and counterproductive to achieving your overall health goals. Therefore, the easy solution is to take a daily multivitamin to achieve the recommended folic acid dosage.
Because our bodies can only absorb about half of the folate we consume, a multivitamin is the best way to get folic acid into your body. A daily multivitamin makes up for what women lack in daily nutrition. Check the bottle label to make sure the multivitamin has 400 mcg of folic acid. Generic multivitamins work just as well as brand names – but cost half the price!
Understanding the great impact folic acid has in the health of women and babies in North Carolina, the March of Dimes NC Preconception Health Campaign and NC Division of Public Health Women’s Health Branch partnered to provide multivitamins with folic acid to women through health departments and other safety net providers. The program includes the purchase and distribution of multivitamins, training for the local health department and community health center staff and technical assistance for participating agencies as they set up this program. For more information about NCPHC, please click here.
Jennifer Vickery is the Western Regional Coordinator for the March of Dimes NC Preconception Health Campaign and a Preconception Health Education Coordinator at Mission Health Fullerton Genetics Center.