If you’re planning to get pregnant, you already know how important a healthy diet, exercise, and plenty of sleep are. Still, one of the most critical ways to ensure a healthy pregnancy is to get enough folic acid before conception.
Folic acid, the synthetic variant of Vitamin B9 or folate, is one of many champion nutrients that your bodies need to fire on all cylinders. Each day, new cells are rapidly reproducing in every organ of our bodies, but none would happen without folic acid.
Folic acid has a critical role in making those cell reproductions possible and happens efficiently. Folic acid becomes even more critical during pregnancy because of its role in preventing NTDs (neural tube defects).
Why Folic Acid is Important
Neural tube defects are congenital disabilities of the spinal cord such as spina bifida, the brain such as Chiari malformation, and anencephaly, another kind that causes brain tissue to descend into the spinal canal.
Neural tube defects impact approximately 300,000 babies globally every year. Still, between fifty and seventy percent of neural tube defects can be avoided when women take folic acid in a supplemental or prenatal vitamin form.
However, the key is to take folic acid every day, whether you’re actively trying to conceive or holding off on having children for a while.
That’s because the moment you get pregnant—before you get a positive pregnancy test—your baby is already reproducing those critical neurological cells that are vital for the development in his spine and brain.
You should also take folic acid every day even if you don’t have plans to have children or think you can’t become pregnant. Since 40 percent of pregnancies globally are unplanned, getting adequate folic acid is an excellent plan should you have a surprise.
Studies show folic acid may do more than prevent neural tube defects. A recent paper in the journal Circulation found that consuming folic acid-fortified foods was linked with an 11 percent decrease of congenital heart defects.
Another study suggests that adequate folate levels may even minimize the risk of having an obese child.
[Also Read: Foods High in Folic Acid]
Folic Acid and Folate: Make It a Daily Habit
Although researchers say any woman who can get pregnant should take folic acid, around 22 percent of women aged between 12- and 49-years don’t have adequate folate in their bodies to avoid neural tube defects, a study by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) found .
Not only is it necessary to get enough folic acid before pregnancy, but you should also carry on to take it throughout your pregnancy both for your health and to support your baby’s growth and development.
Unlike A, D, E, and K (fat-soluble vitamins) that are readily stored in the body, folate is a water-soluble vitamin, so you should get it daily to make sure you always have sufficient available. This nutrient needs to be continuously replenished to maintain healthy levels.
Folic Acid: How Much Do You Need?
In the United States, most women should take a multivitamin that contains 400 mcg (micrograms) of folic acid daily, or the same amount in a separate supplement, before they become pregnant .
During pregnancy, women require 600 mcg, and if they breastfeed, 500 mcg. In other nations, the prescriptions might vary slightly.
Some women may need to take substantial doses—as much as 1,000 micrograms daily—but this should always be used under a physician’s supervision. These include women who have a history of neural tube defects, those with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), or sickle cell disease, malabsorption problems, or celiac disease.
Women who take certain medications for autoimmune diseases, cancer, epilepsy may have to take larger doses.
What happens if we do not get adequate folic acid during pregnancy?
If you do not get adequate folic acid during and before pregnancy, your baby is at higher risk for neural tube defects.
Neural tube defects are severe congenital disabilities that affect the spine, spinal cord, or brain and cause death. These include:
1. Spina Bifida
This disorder happens when an unborn baby’s spinal column does not completely close during development in the womb, leaving the spinal cord vulnerable. As a result, the nerves that handle the legs and other organs do not function. Kids with spina bifida often have lifelong disabilities. They may also need multiple surgeries.
This means that full or most of the skull and brain do not develop in the womb. Almost all babies with this disorder die before or soon after birth.
How do I get folic acid?
You can get folic acid in 2 ways.
Through the foods you consume. Folate is present naturally in some foods, including nuts, spinach, and beans. Folic acid is present in fortified foods (called “enriched foods”), such as bread, pasta, and cereals. Look for the word “enriched” on the ingredients list to determine whether the food has incorporated folic acid.
As a vitamin, many multivitamins sold in the U.S contain 400 micrograms or 100% of folic acid’s daily value. Check the label to be sure.
Although folic acid is more efficiently absorbed and digested, you also need to get folate by eating citrus juices, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans, and bread and cereals fortified with folic acid.
The great news is that you can never get too much folate regardless of how many folate-rich foods you eat and your folic acid supplement. So kick off your day with a green smoothie, beet juice, or a vegetable frittata along with your supplement, and you’ll be off to a great start.