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Folic Acid – The Invaluable Pregnancy Nutrient

Folic acid, also known as folate, is a B vitamin. It is essential to the body especially in the role of cell production and division, including the production of red blood cells. In pregnancy, folic acid prevents neural tube defects such as spina bifida in unborn babies. It’s found in foods, fortified cereals and other grain products and of course, vitamin supplements.

Folic acid helps with the growth of the neural tube in a fetus, which connects to the brain and spinal cord. A deficiency in folic acid may result in the neural tube not being able to close off properly, leaving the baby vulnerable to a condition called spina bifida, where the spinal cord and/or a sac filled with fluid protrude through an opening in the back.

This defect is also known as anencephaly. Babies with anencephaly may be permanently disabled. Folic acid can reduce the incidence of these Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) by as much as 70%.

Folic acid helps in other ways too during pregnancy. It may protect against low birth weight and miscarriages too.

When taken before and during pregnancy, it has also been found to protect against:

  • Cleft lip and palate. It was found that women who got at least 400 mcg of folic acid daily, and ate a healthy diet, had the lowest risk of delivering a child with an opening in the lip (cleft lip).
  • Pre-eclampsia. One report found that women who took folic acid supplements during the second trimester had a reduced risk of pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy-induced high blood pressure.
  • Premature birth. Studies have revealed that women who took folic acid for at least a year before getting pregnant cut their chances of delivering prematurely by half.

Not just for pregnancy

In addition to protecting your baby from birth defects, folic acid could also protect your own health. Studies show it might lower the risks of heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancers. Folic acid might even help ward off Alzheimer’s disease.

The best time to take Folic Acid

Birth defects occur within the first three to four weeks of pregnancy, so it’s important to have folic acid in your system during those early stages when your baby’s brain and spinal cord are developing. As you may find yourself pregnant without planning it, it’s important to take foods rich in folic acid or supplements with folic acid, regardless if you’re trying to conceive or not.

How Much Folic Acid Should I Take?

The recommended daily amount of folic acid for women of childbearing age is 400 micrograms (mcg). The same amount is recommended every day when you are trying to get pregnant.

If you are already pregnant, it is recommended to increase the amount of folic acid to 600 mcg. While you are breastfeeding, you should get at least 500 mcg of folic acid daily.

If you’ve already had a child with spina bifida or anencephaly and are trying to get pregnant again, you will need much more folic acid – 4,000 mcg beginning at least one to three months before conceiving and during the first three months of pregnancy.

Foods High in Folic Acid

Foods that are known to be rich in folic acid include:

  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach and other green leafy vegetables
  • Dried beans
  • Oranges and orange juice
  • Peanuts and other nuts

Side Effects of Taking Folic Acid

Even when taken in doses exceeding what is recommended, folic acid is not likely to be toxic. However, it is still highly advisable to consume no more than 1,000 mcg in supplement form each day.

Folic Acid Supplements

Folic acid is not a nutrient that is easy to obtain from food alone – which is why taking a daily supplement can help. Most multivitamins contain the recommended amount of folic acid. If you’re not sure which vitamin to take, read the label to ensure that the supplement contains 400 mcg or 100% of the daily recommended value of folic acid.

If you’re trying to get pregnant or are already pregnant, your doctor may prescribe a prenatal vitamin, which will contain all the folic acid you’ll need. Remember though, if you’ve already had a baby with an NTD, your doctor will prescribe a much higher dose of folic acid.

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