Folic acid reduces likelihood of congenital heart defects

Eating more spinach and oranges while pregnant could help women prevent heart conditions from developing in their children, new research says.

Food fortified with folic acid, a B vitamin found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains that is necessary in a balanced human diet, was associated with reduced rates of congenital heart defects, according to a new study published today in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

The study was led by K.S. Joseph, MD, PhD, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Joseph and his team analyzed data from almost six million Canadian births from 1990-2011 and found that foods rich in folic acid were associated with an 11 percent reduction in rates of congenital heart defects.

They also found folic acid foods were responsible for reducing congenital heart subtype defects. The researchers found a 27 percent reduction in conotruncal defects, a condition in which there is severe heart outflow tract problems, and a 23 percent reduction in coarctation of the aorta. Additionally, the researchers found a 15 percent reduction in atrial and ventricular septal defects, a condition in which there are holes in the walls that separate heart chambers.

Folic acid is responsible for rapid cell division and growth, a vital process while a fetus is growing, meaning that women should ensure they’re maintaining a healthy diet and taking folic acid supplements during pregnancy, Joseph wrote in the study.

Folic acid deficiencies can result in neural tube defects, spinal cord abnormalities and anemia.

“Older maternal age, pre-pregnancy diabetes mellitus, and preterm preeclampsia were also associated with population rates of CHDs,” the authors wrote in the study. “Although food fortification with folic acid was aimed primarily at reducing neural tube defects, this population-based intervention may also have had a beneficial effect on specific types of CHDs, which in aggregate are more common."