New research shows that women who take folic acid supplements early in their pregnancy can substantially reduce their baby's chances of being born with a cleft lip or palate.
Intake of 0.4 milligrams a day of folic acid reduced by one-third a baby's risk of isolated cleft lip (with or without cleft palate).
About one in every 750 babies in the U.S. is born with cleft lip and/or palate. Cleft lip is a birth defect in which one or more fissures form in the upper lip. Cleft palate is a congenital deformity resulting in lack of fusion of the soft and/or hard palate, either partial or complete.
These findings provide further evidence of the benefits of folic acid for women," said Allen J. Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study.
"We already know that folic acid reduces the risk of neural tube defects, including spina bifida," said Dr. Wilcox. "Our research suggests that folic acid also helps prevent facial clefts, another common birth defect."
Folic acid is a B vitamin found in leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans and whole grains. It's also added to flour and other fortified foods and can be taken as a vitamin supplement. The recommended daily dietary allowance for folic acid for adults is 0.4 mg.
"Folic acid deficiency causes facial clefts in laboratory animals, so we had a good reason to focus on folic acid in our clefts study," said Dr. Wilcox. "It was one of our main hypotheses."
In the study, researchers examined the association between facial clefts and mothers' intake of folic acid supplements, multivitamins and folates. They found that folic acid supplementation of 0.4 mg or more a 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.
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