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One important connection between folic acid and neural tube defects is that taking enough folic acid during pregnancy and before the pregnancy helps to prevent the formation of defects in a fetus. Most neural tube defects occur within the first 30 days of pregnancy, and a woman needs to ensure that she takes in enough folate or folic acid before the pregnancy is confirmed. While the exact cause of the connection of folic acid and neural tube defects is not known, studies have shown that folic acid helps the body develop DNA and is important for cell and tissue growth.
Folic acid is a type of B vitamin. It is naturally found in leafy vegetables such as spinach as well as in orange juice and whole grains. In its natural form, it is known as folate. Folic acid is the synthesized form added to enriched products such as cereal and white bread. A connection between folic acid and neural tube defects was shown when companies began making fortified foods with the B vitamin and the rate of defects decreased.
The vitamin helps prevent several types of neural tube defects. One type, spinal bifida, occurs when the spinal column on a fetus does not close completely after forming. Other neural tube defects affect the brain. When a fetus has anencephaly, the brain is underdeveloped. Encephalocele occurs when the skull does not close completely and some brain tissue emerges from the opening.
Primarily, folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects by encouraging the formation of tissue in the developing fetus. During the first few weeks of pregnancy, a fetus is growing rapidly. The fetus needs DNA to be developed quickly or else problems arise. DNA formation is another connection between folic acid and neural tube defects. The fetus needs the B vitamin to produce the DNA, which in turn produces cells and tissue.
As the neural tube forms within the first month of pregnancy, it is recommended that most women of child-bearing age take at least 400 mcg of folic acid or folate each day, even if they do not intend to become pregnant. A deficiency in folic acid and neural tube defects can occur before a woman knows about her pregnancy. As many pregnancies are unplanned, it is better to take precautions beforehand. If a woman does not get enough folic acid from her diet, she can take a supplement or prenatal vitamin.