Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why I take folic acid and you should too

As an OB/GYN, one of the most frequent discussions I have with my patients revolves around folic acid, which may be a tool for women of all ages to reduce risks for many diseases. I personally take folic acid daily and I encourage my patients to do the same. Here’s why:

Folic acid (which is called folate when it is found naturally in food), Vitamin B9, is a vitamin that essential to many metabolic processes in the human body.  It can be found on the supplements aisle at drug stores and is common in foods such as spinach and lentils.For more info on the levels of folate in foods, click here.

For years we have known that folic acid supplementation is vital to a pregnant woman to help prevent a rare birth defect called a neural tube defect.  A neural tube defect (NTD) occurs when the neural tube fails to close properly and leaves the developing brain or spinal cord exposed to the amniotic fluid.  The neural tube later becomes the baby's spinal cord, spine, brain, and skull. Taking extra folic acid at the time when the neural tube is forming can reduce the chance of the baby having a neural tube defect.

The challenge is that the neural tube is formed very early during pregnancy - about a month after conception – before most women even know that they are pregnant!   Additionally, about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, so it is important to include folic acid in the diet of all women of childbearing age.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Preventive Services Task Force recommend that women of reproductive age supplement their diet with 0.4 mg (400 mcg) of folic acid daily. That’s regardless of whether you’re trying to get pregnant.

Besides the potential impact on the neural tube development, there are some studies that show that folic acid use may also reduce the risk for other birth defects, such as cleft lip and palate and certain congenital heart defects.

It isn’t just your baby that folic acid may help though. It may also play a role in protecting against colon, breast and pancreatic cancers and heart disease. Folic acid may also help regulate your mood and help ease the symptoms of depression. It also appears to help lower blood pressure by relaxing the blood vessels, thereby reducing a woman’s risk of stroke as well.

To sum it up, folic acid isn’t a cure-all for everything, but taking folic acid is essential in all women of childbearing age.  Furthermore, it may be beneficial to women and men of all ages to help reduce the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, stroke and depression.

Personally, as a mom of two young boys, I certainly increased my intake of folic acid while I was pregnant, but the potential health benefits have me taking it longer-term.

Dr. Manisha Parikh is an OB/GYN on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford and is finding life to be very busy with two boys under the age of 3.

Doctors on the medical staff practice independently and are not employees or agents of the hospital.

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