by Rocio C. Anderson, Manager, Health Education/Program Service Coordinator, NCPHC
When the nation’s collective thoughts and concerns are focused on the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), we have to remember that pregnancy and childbirth doesn’t stop. One in 33 babies is born with a birth defect in North Carolina each year according to the March of Dimes NC Birth Defects Profile, a compilation of data from NC Dept. of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, this profile also reports that every year in North Carolina, 1 in 6 infant deaths are due to a birth defect. While these data may be disheartening, we can rely in the research that shows consuming 400 micrograms (mcgs) of folic acid and folate every day before getting pregnant and early in pregnancy helps to prevent neural tube birth defects.
So, what exactly is folic acid? Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, a B vitamin. Folic acid was created to supplement the naturally occurring vitamin B our bodies need on a daily basis. Folic acid is a necessary nutrient that supports our body’s need for energy, growth, and development. After all, our bodies require folic acid for cell growth and reproduction; it is a fundamental building block for processing and genetic material production.
Scientific research has shown that folic acid intake during the preconception and inter-conception years as well as during the first trimester of pregnancy, can help prevent up to 70% of neural tube defects. Neural tube defects (NTDs) are a collection of significant birth defects including Spina Bifida and Anencephaly that occur before most women are even aware they are pregnant. Additionally, folic acid may also help prevent other birth defects such as cleft lip and palate, and some heart defects. When in combination with targeted, recurring wellness checks, a steady regimen of folic acid has been attributed to yielding positive outcomes in the health and well-being of childbearing aged persons and their babies.
Many fruits and vegetables, especially greens and grains, are good sources of folate, however they may not meet the necessary required daily recommendations. It is important to recognize what foods have folate and what foods contain the fortified form of folic acid. These foods should be included as part of our daily intake at any age, however, are especially important for women who are planning to become pregnant or may one day bear a child. It’s hard to get all the folic acid you need from food. Even if you eat foods that have folic acid in them, take your vitamin supplement each day, too.
As the entire state continues to practice the CDC’s recommendations to protect themselves from COVID-19, we cannot forget the recommendations to help improve birth outcomes and reduce birth defects. Let’s start at home and share these health messages with everyone around you. You might be surprised at how a quick message can impact the health of so many babies and their families for generations to come.
The March of Dimes North Carolina Preconception Health Campaign (NCPHC) champions the importance of achieving optimal health prior to pregnancy as a strategy to improve infant mortality and overall birth outcomes to formal and community health leaders around the state. We do this by highlighting the importance of leading a healthy life and the daily consumption of at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid. Additionally, the NCPHC provides a statewide multivitamin distribution program in partnership with safety net providers as an intervention to help mitigate the risk of a future pregnancy impacted by an NTD for vulnerable populations, such as non-pregnant women with low income. Visit our webpages at NCPreconceptionHealth.org and MarchofDimes.org to learn more about the importance of consuming at least 400 mcg of folic to prevent NTDs.