A study conducted at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has found that women who take folic acid supplements early in their pregnancy can reduce their babies’ chances of being born with facial clefts.

Folic acid is a B vitamin found in leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and whole grains. It can also be taken as a vitamin supplement, and it is added to flour and other fortified foods.

“Folic acid deficiency causes facial clefts in laboratory animals, so we had a good reason to focus on folic acid in our clefts study,” says Allen J. Wilcox, MD, PhD, of Research Triangle Park, NC.

In the study, the researchers examined the association between facial clefts and mothers’ intake of folic acid supplements, multivitamins, and folates in diet. The researchers found that folic acid supplementation of 400 micrograms or more per day reduced the risk of isolated cleft lip with or without cleft palate by one third, but had no apparent effect on the risk of cleft palate alone.

The researchers mailed two questionnaires to each of the mothers participating in the study. The first questionnaire, mailed soon after delivery, focused on general health information, including demographics, reproductive history, and information about environmental exposures such as smoking, alcohol, and vitamin intake. The second questionnaire focused on nutrition and diet during the pregnancy. Mothers who reported taking folic acid supplements and or multivitamins were asked to send in their empty bottles or labels to confirm dosage.

The nutrition questionnaire included questions on mothers’ fruit and vegetable consumption during the first 3 months of pregnancy.

The researchers estimated that 22% of isolated cleft palate cases could be averted if all pregnant women took folic acid daily.

[www.newswise.com, January 26, 2007]