In a 12-year study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Australia report that many miscarriages and birth defects could be prevented by a simple substance we are all familiar with: vitamin B-3.
Lead researcher Sally Dunwoodie, from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney, Australia, says “the ramifications are likely to be huge. This has the potential to significantly reduce the number of miscarriages and birth defects around the world, and I do not use those words lightly.”
Laurie Beebe, a registered and licensed dietitian living and working in Vero Beach, is intrigued by the study, though she said more studies are needed to back up the findings.
The study traced the cause of certain types of birth defects to a deficiency in a molecule called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD). NAD plays a key role in regulating metabolism, boosting cell survival and repairing DNA when needed.
A NAD deficiency can be caused by genetic factors, chronic diseases, or lifestyle issues, such as an unhealthy diet. A key element in the production of NAD is niacin, more commonly called vitamin B-3. It is found in foods such as turkey, chicken breast, tuna, peanuts and mushrooms; it is also widely available as a dietary supplement.
Professor Dunwoodie and her colleagues suggest that a sustained intake of a B-3 supplement can help prevent miscarriages and birth defects such as spina bifida and other malformations of the vertebrae, cleft palate, and some heart and kidney defects.
The significance of the finding is amplified because other studies have shown that a significant percentage of expectant mothers have a vitamin B-3 deficiency during the first trimester of their pregnancy, a particularly important time for the baby’s organ development.
The latest information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health is that the general population should intake 14 milligrams of niacin per day. Vero’s Laurie Beebe says that most research suggests the average American diet meets those requirements, but agrees an adequate intake of niacin should be a special focus in pregnancy, as the requirement for pregnant women is higher – 18 milligrams per day.
In addition to possible problems in pregnancy, a deficiency in niacin can cause a disease called pellagra, which is characterized by inflamed skin, diarrhea, fatigue, depression and dementia. In an interesting side note, Beebe said that niacin deficiencies used to be common in the south, as corn – which is lacking in niacin – was such a staple of southern diets, by itself and in recipes such as cornbread.
She says the inflamed skin caused by the deficiency, along with the effects of the sun, caused farmers to have red necks, which is where the now derogatory term “redneck” originated.
Professor Robert Graham, executive director of the Victor Chang Institute, says “just like we now use folic acid to prevent spina bifida, Professor Dunwoodie’s research suggests that it is probably best for women to start taking vitamin B-3 very early on, even before they become pregnant. This will change the way pregnant women are cared for around the world.”
At the same time, the researchers urge expectant mothers to consult with their doctors about taking B-3 supplements, as it is not clear what exact doses are optimal for preventing miscarriage and birth defects.
Laurie Beebe’s website can be found at mycoachlaurie.com; her phone number is 618-616-7704.