Vitamin B12 Prevents Heart Defects in Babies

Healthnotes Newswire (March 29, 2007)—Women whose diets are low in vitamin B12 around the time of conception are at higher risk of having babies with congenital heart defects, according to a new study. Worldwide, 1 million children are born with congenital heart defects each year, contributing to infant death and illness. The new research suggests that many of these cases are preventable.

“The mother serves as the environment of the child as the embryo forms,” said Régine Steegers-Theunissen, MD, PhD, of the Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the study’s project leader. “Both genetic and environmental factors, such as nutrition and lifestyle, play important roles in the prevention or development of congenital heart defects.”

Previous studies have found that mothers of children born with cleft palate and neural tube defects get significantly lower amounts of B vitamins than do mothers of children without those defects. Other studies have demonstrated that supplementing with folic acid around the time of conception protects against congenital heart defects.

The Dutch HAVEN study is an ongoing study designed to identify environmental and genetic factors in congenital heart defect development. Using questionnaires, Dutch researchers calculated the dietary intake of B vitamins among 192 mothers of children with congenital heart defects and 216 mothers of children without the defects. Overall, low intake of vitamin B12 was associated with an increased risk of having a child with a congenital heart defects. The risk doubled in those with the lowest B12 intake. Women with low B12 levels also tended to have higher levels of homocysteine, a substance that raises the risk of heart disease and birth defects.

All mothers in the study also had a substantially lower intake of folic acid than the Recommended Dietary Allowance, which in the United States is 400 mcg per day (600 mcg per day during pregnancy). Both folic acid and vitamin B12 are needed to keep levels of homocysteine in the body low. Folic acid is a water-soluble B vitamin that occurs naturally in foods such as leafy green vegetables (like spinach), fruits (like citrus fruits and juices), beans, and peas.

Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods, such as dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, and fish. Seaweed and tempeh also have small, but inconsistent. amounts. Most people do not require vitamin B12 supplements, though vegetarian protein sources may not provide enough vitamin B12, so vegetarians and vegans may want to supplement with 2 to 3 mcg per day.

“In this study we demonstrated for the first time that a low maternal dietary vitamin B12 intake is associated with an approximately twofold increased risk of having a baby with a congenital heart defect,” Dr. Steegers-Theunissen concluded. “Women who are planning a pregnancy should consume a diet rich in [folic acid] and vitamin B12, and if not possible should use a low-dose vitamin supplement containing both folic acid and vitamin B12.”

(Eur J Nutr 2006;45:478–86)

Jeremy Appleton, ND, CNS, is a licensed naturopathic physician, certified nutrition specialist, and published author. Dr. Appleton was the Nutrition Department Chair at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, has served on the faculty at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, and is a former Healthnotes Senior Science Editor and a founding contributor to Healthnotes Newswire. He has worked extensively in scientific and regulatory affairs in the supplement industry and is now a consultant through his company Praxis Natural Products Consulting and Wellness Services.

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