If you’ve ever been pregnant, you’ve likely heard that it’s a good idea to be taking folic acid if you’re trying to conceive or already pregnant. Folic acid has been proven to help prevent neural tube defects, which are the most common type of birth defects. If you’re pregnant and taking a prenatal vitamin, check the vitamin label for folic acid.
(A level of fewer than 400 micrograms per day is considered safe, and the FDA recommends that you take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day.)
Still, there’s reason to be wary about taking an excessive amount of folic acid. Too much of this nutrient can reduce levels of good cholesterol, increase the risk of birth defects, and cause anemia, a condition that impairs the production of red blood cells and tissues.
What is folic acid?
Folic acid is a B vitamin that can help prevent birth defects and heart disease.
For many women, folic acid deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and heart problems for the mother, which can lead to problems for the baby, such as smaller head size, smaller brain size, and heart malformation.
Importance of folic acid during pregnancy
Folic acid is very important during pregnancy. For the pregnancy to progress normally, the fetus must have enough of this vitamin folic acid is needed for the proper development of the fetus during pregnancy. However, some women have been found to have low levels of folate in their blood, and this could affect the health of the fetus.
To prevent a low-folic acid level, a woman needs to take prenatal vitamins or a folic acid supplement. A woman may be able to take them during pregnancy without a doctor’s advice.
Folic acid supplements can also help prevent serious birth defects.
High amounts of folate can lead to birth defects, so taking a supplement with a high folate level is crucial during pregnancy.
Folate levels can be checked during a routine ultrasound scan.
For example, a woman is considered to have low levels of folate if she is having a singleton pregnancy (one fetus), or if the total amount of folate in the mother’s blood is less than 500 mcg per day.
A doctor may be able to suggest further testing to determine the cause of the low level. If the low level is caused by something other than folate, a person can then choose to take folic acid supplements or fortify their diet with foods.
How much folic acid is needed for good pregnancy outcomes?
- When considering how much folic acid a woman needs during pregnancy, it is important to keep in mind that no one needs more than folic acid than they are currently getting in their diet.
- Folate is not always listed on nutrition labels. It may be considered essential or vitamins A, C, and E, or a vitamin-like substance.
- According to the Institute of Medicine, women need 400 mcg of folate per day, but it is possible to get by on much less. A woman is unlikely to get more than 700 mcg of folate from folic acid-fortified foods and supplements.
- If women get 400 mcg of folate a day, taking 500 mcg of folic acid supplements in addition to the 400 mcg in their diet will meet their needs. Most women take a folic acid supplement in the form of a powder, pill, or liquid. A person should ask their doctor before taking a supplement containing any synthetic, as well as some natural forms of folic acid.
- Because there are many types of folic acid, it is important for women to talk to their doctor to learn about how to use the product and if the product works well with the supplement they already take.
- Anyone taking folic acid should avoid using any vitamin supplements or other sources of folic acid as a source of the nutrient, as they can still be harmful.
Health benefits of taking folic acid during pregnancy
There are multiple health benefits of taking folic acid during pregnancy that include:
Taking folic acid during pregnancy can prevent the formation of spina bifida in the baby, which is a condition in which the baby’s spinal cord develops outside the body and can lead to health complications.
Taking folic acid is necessary for the safe development of the baby’s brain and nervous system. Studies have also shown that taking folic acid during pregnancy may reduce the risk of preterm birth in low-income, first-time mothers.
Several benefits of folic acid intake during pregnancy
1. Folic acid helps the baby’s brain develop
A growing baby’s brain needs high-quality nutrients from the mother during pregnancy. So, it’s important to eat plenty of high-quality foods for the baby’s healthy brain development and brain and nervous system. This includes eating lots of fruits and vegetables, such as legumes, green vegetables, citrus fruits, and other high-fiber foods. Consuming lots of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and vitamin C is also essential for brain development.
2. Folic acid helps the baby’s body develop properly
Research has shown that folic acid helps the baby’s body develop properly. This means that taking folic acid supplements during pregnancy helps the baby to absorb more nutrients from the mother’s body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women who are about to become pregnant should take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily until their first trimester, or until they learn whether they are expecting a boy or a girl, at least.
3. Folic acid reduces the risk of birth defects
An analysis of 14 studies found that women who took 400 mcg of folic acid daily during their last three months of pregnancy had a 12 percent reduction in the risk of spina bifida, a type of birth defect that results in incomplete development of the spinal cord. In contrast, women who did not take folic acid during their last three months of pregnancy had an 18 percent risk of spina bifida.
4. Vitamin D is essential to the baby’s bone development
During pregnancy, the baby’s bone development depends on the nutrients he gets from the mother. The best way to give your baby what he needs is to eat a diet rich in calcium. However, many women are low in calcium during pregnancy, so it’s important to take vitamin D supplements. Studies have shown that vitamin D supplements taken during pregnancy can help to prevent conditions such as rickets, a skeletal disorder that can lead to bones being fragile and weak.
5. Vitamin B12 is essential for the baby’s brain development
A study showed that vitamin B12 taken during pregnancy significantly increased the birth rate of boys. This suggests that the B12 supplements given to women in pregnancy may have a role in ensuring a good ratio of male to female babies.
6. Vitamin D and folic acid can help to prevent miscarriage
While prenatal vitamins are the best way to give your baby these important nutrients, they are not cheap. Fortunately, you can get the good-for-you nutrients with foods like fortified cereals and milk, but remember to eat them with foods rich in vitamin B12 like eggs and red meat, too.
Can you get folic acid from foods?
- The World Health Organization recommends that everyone eat at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate a day from breakfast. However, it’s important to take this information with a pinch of salt. If you are a woman who has had a pregnancy or a significant weight gain or have some other health condition, then you may need to take more folate.
- Food sources of folate include yellow and green vegetables, corn, beans, lentils, spinach, tofu, nuts, brown rice, dark leafy greens, breakfast cereals, whole-grain bread, and pasta.
- Many folic acid supplements also contain synthetic forms of the B vitamin, which are designed to mimic the natural vitamin. However, this form may not be completely effective and may also be harmful.
- Folic acid supplements are available without a prescription and are widely available in most supermarkets.
- An alternative way to take folic acid is to take vitamin B9, also known as folic acid. B9 is found in dark green, leafy vegetables, fish, milk, yogurt, and beans. This is a natural form of folic acid that does not have the same risks associated with supplements.
With an excellent diet and appropriate supplements, it is possible to reduce a woman’s risk of developing spina bifida. Women of childbearing age should never take folic acid supplements. Always ask a doctor before taking any folic acid supplement.
Anyone concerned that they may be at risk for spina bifida or other birth defects should speak to a doctor or midwife.
Meeting a person’s nutritional needs can help to improve their health and prevent health problems. It is also important to follow a healthy diet. This can help to promote good overall health and prevent many health problems.