Yesterday, a government Task Force reaffirmed its stance that women who are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, should take folic acid supplements as a means of preventing birth defects.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of national medical experts, released its final recommendation on folic acid supplements for the prevention of birth defects. The group examined 24 studies on the benefits and potential side effects of folic acid supplementation and concluded that they’re safe and quite effective. The Task Force regularly re-visits health issues in order to ensure that government guidelines for Americans are in line with the latest scientific research.
Folic acid has repeatedly been shown to prevent improper brain and spinal chord development, commonly referred to as neural tube defects. Many birth defects happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy, which is why doctors recommend women start taking a daily supplement of 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid when they are even considering becoming pregnant.
The Task Force concluded that the most important timeframe for women to take folic acid supplements are a month prior to becoming pregnant and throughout the first three months of pregnancy.
Dr. Alex Kemper, a member of the task force and professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical School, says that given how safe folic acid supplementation is, women could take the pills for the duration of pregnancy if they wish. “Most [defects] seem to happen early in pregnancy, before a woman may even know she’s pregnant,” he says. “Given that only half of pregnancies are planned, it makes sense for any woman who might become pregnant to be taking the supplements.”
Women can get folate, the natural form of folic acid, from their diets, if they eat foods high in the nutrient, like dark green leafy vegetables, legumes and oranges. But an estimated 75% of women do not get the recommended daily amount of folate from diet alone, according to the Task Force.
“The recommendation is to make sure women get enough folic acid to prevent defects, and the one really sure way is by taking the supplement,” Kemper said.
The Task Force has given the guideline an “A” recommendation, which means there is a high certainty of a substantial benefit. Kemper says women who want to take daily folic acid supplementation can either get it through folic acid specific supplements or in a multi-vitamin, as long as it has the recommended 400 to 800 microgram dosage.