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Taking folic acid supplements before conception and in the first trimester of pregnancy continues to be a major line of defense against neural tube defects.
In a statement published in JAMA, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that all people planning on becoming pregnant or who could become pregnant take a daily supplement of 0.4 mg to 0.8 mg (400 μg to 800 μg) of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects.
The task force also found that folic acid is not associated with maternal cancer or autism, which were the concerns of some researchers. The current findings regarding potential harm align with earlier evidence examining possible risks.
The recommendation also aligns with previous recommendations from the USPSTF and is supported by 12 more recent observational studies. Neural tube defects occur in an estimated 3000 pregnancies per year.
Folic acid deficiency is common due to diet, impaired folate metabolism, and poor nutrient uptake as a result of medications or bariatric surgery.
“As much as we’ve been trying to get the word out there, we still need to get out there even more, pyridium urinary retention ” Wanda Nicholson, MD, MPH, MBA, vice chair of the USPSTF, told Medscape Medical News. “It’s so simple and straightforward and can be so impactful for the health of the baby.”
Neural tube formation occurs 26 to 28 days after fertilization. Folic acid supplementation is essential for all people who may become pregnant, considering half of the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, according to the USPSTF.
“In many cases, neural tube formation has already occurred, or not occurred appropriately, before someone realizes that they’re pregnant,” Nicholson said. “That’s why it’s so important to start taking folic acid one month prior to conception if you’re planning on becoming pregnant, and if you’re capable of being pregnant but not planning pregnancy, yes, we’re advocating that you also proceed with folic acid supplementation.”
Primary care physicians play a key role in patient education and ensuring that all patients receive adequate folic acid, according to Spencer McClelland, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Denver Health in Colorado, who was not involved in the statement. McClelland advised that clinicians recommend patients who are or could get pregnant take a multivitamin because most brands will contain the recommended dosage of folic acid.
“There’s some confusion about folic acid,” he said. “Many patients know that they should be on a prenatal vitamin, but most don’t know that the reason we’re recommending a prenatal vitamin is almost entirely because of the value of folic acid, and everything else in the prenatal vitamin is kind of icing on the cake.”
For patients trying to get pregnant, the risk for neural tube defects “is one of many examples of the importance of preconception counseling,” McClelland said.
Nicholson noted that the recommended 0.4 mg to 0.8 mg of folic acid per day is for patients without heightened deficiency due to medications or bariatric surgery. At-risk patients should receive counseling from their physician to determine the correct amount to take.
JAMA. Published online August 1, 2023. Full text
The authors report no conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.
Brittany Elyse Vargas is a health writer who covers medical news.
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