Folic Acid in Pregnancy: Why Is It Important?

Folic acid plays an important role in the early stages of pregnancy when the baby’s body is starting to form. It’s recommended that pregnant women take in folic acid before and throughout the whole 9 months of pregnancy. Not taking enough folic acid can lead to neural tube defects – so how much should you take, and why exactly should you include in your diet? Let’s find out.

What is folic acid?

folic acid

Folic acid is a type of vitamin B. Also know as vitamin M, vitamin B9, folic acid is the oxidized mono glutamate form of the vitamin used in supplements.

What’s the difference between folic acid and folate? To be specific, folate comes in two forms: pteroyl polyglutamate and pteroyl monoglutamate. Pteroyl polyglutamate (folate) is found in natural food sources, while pteroyl monoglutamate (folic acid) is found in fortified foods and supplements. Folate is the umbrella term that generically refers to both.

As folate is water-soluble, it’s difficult for the body to stock up on folate. Folate is also weak against heat and is easily destroyed in the process of cooking. In addition, only about 30 to 50% of folate taken in is actually absorbed by the body. Thus, it’s recommended that expectant women take in folic acid as well.

Folic acid in early pregnancy

woman supplement folic acid

Folic acid has the effects of preventing anemia and arteriosclerosis (the hardening of arteries). Also, folic acid is especially important in early pregnancy when the embryo needs it to be able to create new cells. These cells are the blueprint for DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), and the nucleic acid in DNA comes from folate or folic acid.

Insufficient intake of folic acid causes cell production to grind to a halt. This, in turn, causes neural tube defects.

Folic acid and pregnancy: What are neural tube defects?

baby mother

Neural tube defects (NTDs) are defects in the neural tube and refer to the inability of the tube to close fully, resulting in brain and spinal cord defects like spina bifida and anencephaly. NTDs are caused by the failure of organs that make up the central nervous system to form completely during Weeks 5 to 7.

The central nerve is completed through the production of sufficient cells, and should the embryo not have enough folic acid to make enough cells, the baby will be at a higher risk of having neural tube defects.

It’s therefore very important that expectant moms take in enough folic acid, especially in the early stages of pregnancy. Once you suspect that you’re pregnant, or if you’re planning for a child, make sure you up your intake of folic acid.

Folic acid in the second and third trimester of pregnancy

pregnant woman supplement folic acid

As aforementioned, folic acid is essential in preventing neural tube defects in the embryo in the early stages of pregnancy. So, what role does folic acid play throughout pregnancy?

Folic acid helps combat anemia in the second and third trimester. As the fetus gets nutrients through the blood of the mom, it’s easy for expectant moms to become anemic. It’s said that about 30-40% of expectant moms have anemia.

If you don’t have enough folate or vitamin B12 and should your anemia take a turn for the worse, there is a possibility that you might get megaloblastic anemia (a type of anemia). Insufficient folate or vitamin B12 affects DNA production, and the body will be unable to produce healthy red blood cells. Should that happen, you will require treatment at the hospital. So, make sure you’re taking in enough folic acid throughout pregnancy.

Folic acid during pregnancy: Recommended daily intake

supplement

Folate from food sources are usually insufficient – it’s recommended that you take folic acid supplements as well. How much folic acid should you be taking in a day?

400 to 600 μg a day when you’re pregnant

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pregnant women above the ages of 19 should take in about 600μg of folate a day.1The WHO recommends about 400μg a day.2So, use both as guidelines and check with your practitioner.

Folic acid and folate from food sources

The name “folate”, for some reason or another, might conjure up images of vegetables, but they are actually found in a variety of food. You can find them in some fishes, seaweed, some mushrooms, or fruits like strawberries, oranges and bananas.

The FDA requires manufacturers to fortify bread, cereals, cornmeals, pasta, rice and other grain product with folic acid, and these staples have contributed to the American diet.1

Folic acid from supplements

You need a slightly higher amount of folic acid during pregnancy in comparison to non-pregnancy periods. Trying to get folate from natural sources is important, but relying on food sources might not be enough. There might be a need for you to add folic acid supplements to your diet.

Folic acid for pregnancy: The makings of a healthy baby

pregnant woman smile

Research has shown that folic acid from fortified foods and supplements actually plays a vital role in helping prevent neural tube defects. The common misconception is that natural sources are better, but in this case, a folic acid supplement is better!

Folic acid is one of many nutrients that are silently supporting your pregnancy. The making of a healthy baby begins way before pregnancy, so make sure you have enough folic acid in your diet starting now. Here’s to your pregnancy and future baby!