You may have heard about how important folic acid is in the lead up to – and during the first three months of – pregnancy. But how important a role does folic acid actually play?
Well, in pregnancy, all women need folic acid in their diet both for the sake of their own health and also for the development of their baby, particularly in the first month of pregnancy.
To be honest, folic acid (which is also known as vitamin B9, vitamin Bc or folacin) is actually important for all people since it helps the body to make healthy new cells, but you can see why it’s even more important for pregnant women to take.
The vitamin’s importance in the development of unborn children was first suggested in the late 1960s, when researchers found folate deficiencies could contribute to neural tube defects. Since 1992, the Department of Health has recommended that women, who are planning a a pregnancy, or who are in the early stages of pregnancy, should take a 400mcg supplement of folic acid and should continue with this until at least the twelfth week of pregnancy.
So what exactly is folic acid?
Well, folate is actually a B vitamin, which is naturally found in nuts, liver and dark green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach. (Folic acid refers to the synthetic form of the vitamin).
The body needs folic acid to form new cells and genetic material, and this is thought to be the reason why the vitamin is so important for the healthy development of an unborn baby. If women have enough folate in their bodies before they become pregnant, the vitamin can decrease the risk of birth defects of the baby’s brain (anencephaly) or of the spine (spina bifida). With anencephaly, the baby is born without part of its skull and brain and it eventually dies. Spina bifida occurs when part of the baby’s spinal cord remains outside the body. The baby’s legs may be paralysed and it may later develop bladder and bowel control problems. These neural tube defects occur in one or two births per thousand.
If you’re planning a pregnancy, or have just found out that you are pregnant, then you can check if you’re getting enough folic acid by reading food and vitamin labels. (On labels folic acid is also called ‘folate’). The amount of folic acid or folate in a vitamin or food may be given as either 400mcg (micrograms) or 0.4mg (milligrams), but the amounts are the same.
To increase the level of folic acid that you’re taking, you can certainly eat more foods containing the vitamin:
High content (50mcg+ per serving): Brussel sprouts, beef extract, yeast, extract, cooked kidney, kale, spinach, granary bread, broccoli, green beans
Medium content (15-50mcg+ per serving): Cauliflower, cooked chick peas, potatoes, oranges, peas, parsnips, baked beans, cabbage, white bread, eggs, brown rice
Experts are agreed, however, that you can’t achieve the recommended intake of folic acid through diet alone, so for that reason it’s advisable to visit your local pharmacy or health food shop and ask for a good folic acid supplement.
Talk to your doctor about how much folic acid you need if:
- You are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant.
- You had a baby with a birth defect of the brain or spine and want to get pregnant again. Your doctor may give you a prescription for 4,000 mcg of folic acid. That’s ten times the normal dose. Taking this high dose of folic acid can lower the risk of having another baby with these birth defects.
- You have a family member with spina bifida. Your doctor may give you a prescription for 4,000 mcg folic acid.
- You have spina bifida and want to get pregnant.