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Star Bulletin Alan Titchenal & Joannie Dobbs Health Options
Alan Titchenal
 & Joannie Dobbs
                   Wednesday, January 23, 2002


Safe conception helps prevent birth defects

January is Birth Defects Prevention Month. According to the March of Dimes, one in 28 babies is born with a defect, and many could be prevented.

The development of an infant in the womb is amazingly complex, and unavoidable errors are always possible. However, many developmental errors that lead to birth defects are more than just a matter of genetic chance and bad luck. Some defects can be pre­vented by how a woman lives before and during pregnancy.

The risk of birth defects is typically greatest in unplanned pregnancies. Most birth defects develop between two and eight weeks after conception. During this most vulnerable period, many women may not realize they are pregnant.

Consequently, for all sexually active women who might become pregnant, it is wise to practice "safe conception." By this, we mean doing the things that minimize the risks:

>> Don't drink alcoholic beverages. Alcohol can disrupt and alter normal cell division during critical phases of embryonic or fetal development. The result is a group of defects collectively called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which typically includes physical deformities in the face, as well as varying levels of mental retardation and emotional problems. Even moderate drinking appears to lead to subtle fetal-alcohol effects that can show up as behavioral and learning problems.

>> Avoid medications. Even some non-prescription medications, herbal products and essential oils can cause birth defects. No drugs or herbs should be used without the guidance of a physician or pharmacist. This includes nicotine, and is a good reason to quit smoking.

>> Limit caffeine in beverages, foods, medications and herbal products. Although modest consumption does not appear to cause birth defects, some studies do find an increased incidence of miscarriages in women consum­ing more than 150 milligrams of caffeine per day -- one to two cups of brewed coffee.

Eating a varied and balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is a major factor in preventing birth defects. This is especially true for teens who need to support their own growth along with the growth and development of the fetus.

Along with a good diet, a moderate vitamin and mineral supplement is advised by many health professionals. Excessive intake of nutrients, however, can be dangerous, so consider the following guidelines:

>> Help prevent infant spinal-cord defects by consuming the Recommended Dietary Allowance of 770 micrograms of folic acid per day. Getting this much from green vegetables and fruit can be challenging, so the Institute of Medicine recommends supplements or fortified foods. But total folic-acid intake should not exceed 1,000 mcg per day.

>> Iron needs during pregnancy almost double, to 27 mg per day. Supplements are commonly recommended, but total iron intake should not exceed 45 mg per day.

>> During pregnancy, getting the recommended 1,000 mg per day of calcium is especially important for the bones of mother and child. Intake shouldn't exceed 2,500 mg per day from food and supplements.

>> Vitamin A is important, but too much can cause birth defects. Don't exceed 3,000 mcg per day.

Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S. and Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.
are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences,
College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa.
Dr. Dobbs also works with the University Health Service

© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --

Human Nutrition, Food & Animal Sciences · University of Hawai`i at Mānoa
1955 East-West Road · Honolulu, HI 96822
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