If you read food labels like any health-conscious American consumer, you have seen folate listed in that nutrition box, just below the grams of protein and carbohydrates you are counting.
What is folate? What does it do? Why should you care?
If you are a woman of childbearing age, even if you cannot bear the thought of having a baby right now, you should care. If you love a woman who may one day bear children, you should care. Folate is a vitamin -- one of the B family -- that will affect the growth of a baby before it is even conceived in mind or body.
A deficiency of folate in a woman's diet contributes to birth defects of the neural tube. A neural tube defect is the second most common type of malformation in babies born around the world, with an incidence of 1 to 2 per 1,000 births.
It occurs when the spinal cord does not close properly, such as in spina bifida. These birth defects range in severity from no symptoms to complete paralysis and loss of bowel or bladder control to death. A surviving child may require surgical repair, lifelong therapy and complete care.
The spinal cord closes only four weeks after conception, just as the tiny heart begins to beat. A woman may not even know she is pregnant, and her baby's formation is in very important stages.
For this reason, in 1996 the Food and Drug Administration advised that all cereal and grain products be fortified with folate. This measure increases every woman's folate intake and has reduced the incidence of these birth defects by 50 percent.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 0.4 milligrams of folic acid for women every day. This amount ensures adequate stores for the optimal health of a baby should pregnancy occur. This vitamin is ingested as folic acid and becomes folate in the body, so either term may be used on packaging.
Some women require more folic acid and should talk to their health care providers about conditions such as hyperglycemia or diabetes, epilepsy or seizure disorders, alcoholism and Crohn's disease. These women will require 4 mg of folic acid every day as would any woman who has previously given birth to a baby with a neural tube defect. Natural food sources for folic acid include egg yolks, orange juice and green leafy vegetables.
For the sake of your baby, even if that baby is years and dreams away, it is a good healthy habit to take a multivitamin with 0.4 mg of folic acid every day. If you are actively pursuing motherhood, this is one of the most important steps you can take to ensure the health and well-being of your child.
David Paad is a certified nurse midwife with the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Women's Health Associates. To contact him, call 410-553-8260.