WHY IS SO IMPORTANT
Taking folate should begin long before you consider getting pregnant. So says Tina Visser, a medical adviser for women’s health at pharmaceutical company Bayer. We know that neural tube defects (NTD) such as spina bifida and anencephaly can be significantly reduced if women supplement their diets with folic acid. Taking folate at the right time can’t be emphasised enough as the first and most obvious intervention mechanism to reduce the incidence of NTDs, particularly among women in their reproductive age. Folate has a well-established protective role against the occurrence and recurrence of NTDs. NTDs are major malformations resulting from the failure of the neural tube to close properly, and can have serious consequences for a child’s quality of life. Normally, the neural tube closes in the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. About 300 000 babies worldwide are born with NTDs every year. Infants with spina bifida – when the bones of the spine (vertebrae) don’t form properly around part of the baby’s spinal cord – have varying degrees of paralysis of the legs or loss of bowel or bladder control. While the causes of NTDs are not known, it is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. While doctors do not know how to eliminate all instances of NTDs, we do know that folic acid intake prevents some forms of NTDs. The best early preventative measure is to build up the level of folate among childbearing women. Since folates belong to the group of B vitamins and can’t be produced by the body, women should talk to their doctors about supplementing with folate before even contemplating getting pregnant. Folate facilitates a number of essential functions within the body, including enabling the healthy development and growth of the foetus in the womb. Women are at an advantage if they have good folate levels by the time they conceive. Research suggests that the risk of NTDs can be substantially reduced if women supplement their diet with a daily intake of folic acid at least a month before and during the early weeks of pregnancy. Check with your doctor for new contraceptive pills that are fortified with folate, and which stay in your system for up to three months. That way, if you’re planning on falling pregnant, your body will have enough folate to help protect your foetus from NTDs, even when you stop taking the contraceptive.