Link Between Folic Acid and Down Syndrome

Women who have trouble metabolizing the vitamin folic acid are at a higher risk of having children with Down syndrome, a government study finds, raising the question of whether folic acid supplements might fight the syndrome. Mothers with a genetic abnormality that hinders how the body processes folic acid were 2.6 times more likely to have a child with Down syndrome than mothers without that genetic defect. Millions of women appear to have this genetic abnormality, yet the risk of having a child with Down syndrome actually is small - one in 600 births. If you have this mutation and you happen to have a very poor diet, it magnifies the problem; the researchers call this a gene-nutrient interaction. Folic acid is a B vitamin found naturally in leafy green vegetables, beans, tuna, eggs and other foods. Also, in 1998 the government ordered some grain products such as flour, breakfast cereal and pasta to be fortified with folic acid.

Women who eat 400 micrograms of folic acid a day cut in half their chances of having babies with birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifida. Whether a baby develops these defects is determined in the first days after conception - well before a woman knows she is pregnant. And even with food fortification, it can be hard to eat enough. So health experts recommend that every woman of childbearing age take a daily dietary supplement, such as a multivitamin, containing 400 micrograms of folic acid.

There have been hints that folic acid might play a role in other birth defects, too, but this FDA research is the first good evidence. The March of Dimes estimates there are 250,000 Americans with Down syndrome. Normally, each egg and sperm cell contains 23 chromosomes. When either an egg or a sperm carries a certain extra chromosome, Down syndrome results. In most cases, the problem arises during ovulation, when a woman's body produces an abnormal egg.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition October 1999

COMMENT: Folic acid appears to be one of the major essential nutrients. It is best obtained from fresh vegetables. That should always be your first and major source for this nutrient. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to obtain folic acid from vegetables from vegetables and you are a woman who could get pregnant, it would be highly recommended to add folic acid to your supplement program.

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