We all know how important it is for women of childbearing age to supplement their diet with folic acid, but new research has shown just how effective this B vitamin is at preventing birth defects.
When researchers analysed data from nearly six million Canadian births from 1990 to 2011, they found that folic acid food fortification, which was made mandatory in Canada in 1998, was associated with an 11 percent reduction in rates of congenital heart defects overall.
Interestingly, researchers found that the beneficial effects of folic acid were evident in some subtypes of congenital heart defects but not others. Folic acid supplementation was linked to a:
- 27 percent reduction in conotruncal defects, or severe heart outflow tract abnormalities
- 23 percent reduction in coarctation of the aorta — a narrowing of the major artery (the aorta) that carries blood to the body
- 15 percent reduction in atrial and ventricular septal defects — holes in the wall separating heart chambers
No changes were seen with regard to chromosomally associated defects – abnormality in the number of an infant’s chromosomes.
“Our study examined the effect of folic acid food fortification on each specific subtype of congenital heart disease based on the Canadian experience before and after food fortification was made mandatory in 1998,” said K.S. Joseph, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s senior author and professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
Folate deficiency can result in several different complications – the most important of these are neural tube defects (such as spina bifida, an abnormality of the spine and spinal cord) in babies and anemia (in which the number and function of red blood cells is affected leading to an inability of the blood to carry sufficient oxygen).
Dr. Joseph added that women who are likely to get pregnant should start taking folic acid supplements before getting pregnant as they may not necessarily receive adequate folate from diet alone.
Less than one in four Irish women take folic acid before they conceive, while one in 10 women wrongly believe they get enough of the vital vitamin from their food. Taking 400 mcg of folic acid daily as a supplement could potentially prevent two thirds of Neural Tube Defects every year – on average, that’s approximately 50 fewer babies affected every year.