If you're pregnant, chances are you're doing everything in your power to ensure a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. If taking your prenatal vitamins is topping your daily to-do list, you're on the right track. But while you've probably read your fair share of information about the countless benefits of the key nutrient in prenatal vitamins, folic acid, a new study found that vitamin B3 might play an equally important role in preventing miscarriages and birth defects.
In what's being called a "double breakthrough," researchers at the Victor Chang Institute in Sydney, Australia analyzed the DNA of four families whose mothers all suffered several miscarriages and whose babies had been born with multiple birth defects, including problems with heart and kidney functioning, as well as issues with their vertebrae and instances of a cleft palate. In each child, they discovered two genes that caused a deficiency in a vital molecule known as nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD).
The researchers tested their theory by removing the two offending genes in mice to see whether or not this resulted in similar birth defects. At first, the mice had all normal babies, but then researchers recalled that standard mouse chow is rich in vitamin B3, or niacin, a nutrient that makes up this important NAD molecule. So the scientists decided to feed pregnant mice a chow that did not contain vitamin B3. The result? Several babies died in utero and the ones that survived had birth defects similar to those seen in the four families that they had researched earlier.
Of course, more studies on humans are needed to before any changes are made in recommendations for supplementation during pregnancy. Still, the results are hopeful. "Niacin is already part of the prenatal vitamin mix, so we've been encouraging pregnant women to get their fair share for decades," explains Sherry Ross, M.D., OB/GYN and women's health expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "But this is an excellent reminder to take those prenatals religiously, starting three months before you get pregnant, to ensure your body has the optimal nutrients it needs to maintain a healthy home for your baby and to prevent birth defects."
Bottom line: While this research may have a bigger impact for future pregnancies, Dr. Ross warns against taking an additional supplement containing niacin. For now, start popping regular prenatals as soon as you think you might consider trying to conceive. "Around 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, and most women don't even find out they're pregnant until around 8 weeks, when much of pregnancy has already been established," she says. "This study reminds that having all of the healthy vitamins and nutrients on board before you get pregnant ensures you're not deficient in anything."
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What you can do is incorporate more niacin in your diet, by chowing down on chicken, turkey, tuna and grass-fed beef. If you're a vegetarian, you can still get your fix from peanuts, leafy greens, green peas, crimini mushrooms, asparagus, sweet potato, and more. "It's kind of hard to be deficient in niacin, so if you're taking your prenatals, you're doing a good job!" Dr. Ross says.