June 4, 2002 -- Less than one in three American women are taking a multivitamin that could help protect the health of her future children as well as her own. A new survey released today by the March of Dimes shows that only 31% of women between the ages of 18 and 45 take a folic acid supplement every day, despite the fact that the vitamin has been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of serious birth defects.
In fact, only 10% of women realize that the B vitamin folic acid must be taken prior to pregnancy to prevent birth defects of the brain and spine known as neural tube defects. The most common of these defects is spina bifida, a leading cause childhood paralysis, and anencephaly, a fatal condition in which a baby is born with a severely underdeveloped brain and skull.
"If you wait until you've missed your first period to take folic acid, you're already too late," says Siobhan Dolan, MD, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and women's health at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City.
Dolan says it takes about a month for the vitamin to provide the maximum benefit, and that's why it's recommended that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin containing at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily.
"Most women take having a healthy baby completely for granted," says Kerry Wallace, who was born with spina bifida. "They tell you to stop smoking to prevent lung cancer, but they don't tell women to take folic acid to have a healthy baby."
Wallace and her husband, who also suffers from the disease, recently welcomed a healthy baby girl -- free of birth defects -- thanks to folic acid supplementation.
Neural tube defects develop in the early weeks of pregnancy, and folic acid is needed during this crucial time period to allow the brain and spine to develop properly.
In cases like the Wallace's, where the mother or father has a history of neural tube defects or gave birth to a previous child with birth defects, larger doses of the vitamin may be recommended.
Although researchers aren't exactly sure how folic acid works to prevent neural tube defects, several studies have confirmed that it plays a vital role in the development of the building blocks of a healthy brain and spine.
"Folic acid is beyond advice, it's a scientifically proven fact," says Dolan.
Hearing those words from a doctor may be the push that many women need to start taking folic acid supplements. The survey found that 90% of the women would be very or somewhat likely to take the vitamin if their healthcare provider recommended it. Only 20% of the women in the current survey said they knew that folic acid prevents birth defects, compared with only 4% in 1995.
Gail Frank, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says the message about folic acid may still be "new news" for many women.
"It's strange that women aren't locked into the idea yet. It should be as popular as a new dress, pair of shoes, or makeup. But it's 100 times more important," Frank tells WebMD.
She says there are only about 8-10 major natural sources of the vitamin, such as leafy greens, asparagus, and lean meats. But the form of folic acid found in fortified foods -- including ready-to-eat cereals, whole grains, and orange juice -- and supplements is much easier for the body to absorb.
"It's important for women to understand how what they eat pertains to their overall health and well-being as well as the health of an unborn child," says Frank. "They should be alert that there are specific nutrients that can prevent challenges their body and baby will face, and this is one of them."