In the late 1920s, the London School of Medicine for Women graduated a brilliant student named Lucy Wills. This newly minted physician embarked on a trip to Bombay to investigate reports of anemic female laborers whose condition seemed to be exacerbated by childbirth. Thinking the anemia could be a sign of a nutritional deficiency, she fed her patients Marmite, which at the time was a fad among British and Australian health nuts. It seemed to help, and because she didn’t know which chemicals in Marmite were responsible for her patients’ improvement, she called that unknown ingredient the Wills factor — which we now know is folic acid.
Prenatal folic-acid supplements are thought to prevent 50 to 75 percent of neural tube defects.
January 8 marked the start of Folic Acid Awareness Week. Folic acid is essential in cell division, so we need it in order to grow or simply to repair damaged tissues. It is especially important that anyone who might become pregnant consumes at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, as it can help prevent certain types of birth defects.
Neural tube defects, including anencephaly and spina bifida, occur in about 1 in 1,000 births, and can affect an embryo when it is just a few weeks old, often before pregnancy is even detected. Anencephaly is an especially tragic and usually fatal condition in which an embryo fails to develop parts of its brain or skull. The prognosis for spina bifida is better — some people with spina bifida are unable to walk, while other cases are so mild that they might never be diagnosed. Continue reading