Alcoholism and Neural Tube Defects: What Every Alcoholic Should Know

Alcoholism and Neural Tube Defects: What Every Alcoholic Should Know

It is widely acknowledged that alcoholism can lead to health problems. The question that can be posed here however, is does anyone know and understand to what extent heavy drinking can affect the body? How about for specific at risk populations? For instance, what happens when pregnant women drinking alcohol? Is eating well, sleeping eight hours a night and maintaining low stress levels enough to maintain a healthy pregnancy? Though all of these factors are important, there are specific vitamins that are needed to ensure a healthy pregnancy and subsequently a strong baby. One such component being emphasized by the medical community and organizations like the Centers for Disease Control is folic acid.

What are Neural Tube Defects?

The two most common types of neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly. Neural tube defects consist of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. In spina bifida, the fetal spinal column doesn't close completely during the first month of pregnancy. Nerve damage usually occurs which tends to result in at least some paralysis of the legs. In anencephaly, a good portion of the brain does not properly develop. Babies with anencephaly tend to either be stillborn or die shortly after birth.

What is Folic Acid?

Folic Acid is a vitamin in the B family. The human body utilizes B vitamins in order to make new cells. For this reason, folic acid is something that every person needs. For women who are attempting to get pregnant folic acid is even more essential. If there is enough folic acid in a woman’s body prior to pregnancy, this nutrient can help to prevent birth defects of the type discussed above. Specifically, folic acid can prevent birth defects present in the baby’s brain and spine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and the United States Public Health Service every woman who could become pregnant is urged to incorporate at least 400 micrograms (400 mcg) of synthetic folic acid every day.

How Does One Know What Enough Folic Acid Consists Of?

A simple way to make sure that the proper nutrients are being consumed is by taking a vitamin that already contains folic acid. Most vitamins and folic acid pills in the United States contain the daily value, or the one hundred percent requirement, of folic acid that one should consume. When in doubt one can always check the label to make sure of what the daily value is. The other way one can get enough folic acid, is to eat cereal that is enriched with folic acid. This can be easily checked by making sure that the box says one hundred percent folic acid on the side of the box.

When Does Folic Acid need to be implemented into the Diet?

Neural tube defects occur during the first few weeks of pregnancy- usually by the 28th day of pregnancy to be exact. For this reason and since most women don’t even know they are pregnant at such an early stage, folic acid consumption, as well as other nutrients, needs to be implemented before an inpidual becomes pregnant. When one thinks of pregnancy, the reasons for this should be obvious. Think of the female body as an incubator. If it is not clean and properly padded, therefore functioning to the best of its ability, proper ‘cooking’ of the embryo will not occur. In addition, remember that folic acid assists in proper cell growth. When an egg and sperm unite to become an embryo, the main function is cell pision. Without enough folic acid in the inpidual’s system, the proper pision of cells will not occur, thus resulting in neural tube defects, among other things.

So what is the Link between Folic Acid Deficiency and Alcoholism?

Chances are, if an inpidual is heavy into drinking, he or she probably isn’t the most health conscious person. This means meals are not eaten regularly or when they are, the actual nutrient value is debatable. So, to begin with an alcoholic probably isn’t taking in as much folic acid as is recommended. In addition to starving the body of proper nutrition, a few other things can occur. Liver damage usually results, as well as kidney damage. In addition to these things is a reduction in the metabolism of folic acid by the liver, thereby rendering the consumption of folic acid useless. This occurs because the intestines tend to be damaged by alcohol. When this damage takes place, the small intestines in particular can be harmed. Since this part of the body is necessary for nutrient absorption, a deficiency results.

What are Symptoms of Folic Acid Deficiency?
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Weakness
  • Glossitis (inflammation of the tongue)
  • Nausea
  • Anorexia
  • Headache
  • Fainting
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Pallor
  • Slight jaundice
  • Progressive fatigue


How Can Folic Acid Deficiency be Remedied?

First and foremost, any inpidual thinking about pregnancy needs to eliminate all alcohol from her diet. This can be done by joining a group like Alcoholics Anonymous, or attending a center specialized in alcohol or drug detox. It is probably best to take the comprehensive route and go to such a center. Alcohol detoxification can take a long time. So, though one may have stopped drinking, it is probably best to wait a while and allow the body to heal itself before thinking about pregnancy. In order to find out exactly what nutrients should be taken and in which amounts it is best to consult a medical professional as actual dosages will vary on a person to person basis.

Rachel Hayon, MPH, RN


  1. Chen, C.P. (2008) Syndromes, disorders and maternal risk factors associated with neural tube defects. Taiwan Journal of Obstetrical Gynecology. March 47 (1): 1-9
  2. De Wals P, Tairou F, Van Allen MI, et al. (2007). "Reduction in neural-tube defects after folic acid fortification in Canada". New England Journal of Medicine 357 (2): 135–142.
  3. Haslam N and Probert CS. (1998). "An audit of the investigation and treatment of folic acid deficiency". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 91 (2): 72-3.

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