Folic Acid and Pregnancy
What is folic acid?
Folic acid, or folate, is a B vitamin that is used by every cell in the body. Its function is to help cells grow and divide. Folic acid molecules are critical for the body’s metabolism of nucleic acids and amino acids. These two compounds promote healthy cells and are important for the manufacture of red blood cells, the body’s immune cells, skin cells, and brain and neural cells. They are also used to build and repair DNA damage within the body to reduce the formation of cancer cells.
Why is Folic acid important for pregnancy?
Healthy cells require an adequate supply of folic acid for proper growth and development of the mother and her unborn child.
For the expectant mother, folic acid is important to prevent anemia, strengthen the immune system, and maintain healthy metabolism during pregnancy. Folic acid may also lower the risk of heart disease, infection, and cancer. Folic acid deficiency may be associated with increased risks of preterm delivery, low birth weight infant, or fetal growth restriction.
For the unborn child, folic acid is important for the formation of all the cells of the body. It is especially important for the proper formation of the brain and the spinal cord. The risks of certain birth defects are lowered if adequate folic acid is provided prior to conception and during early pregnancy, often before a woman knows she may be pregnant.
What types of birth defects may occur if folic acid is too low?
In the United States, over 3,000 cases of neural tube defects are diagnosed each year. This particular congenital anomaly is associated with low folic acid levels at the time just prior to conception and during the first four weeks of pregnancy.
The cells that will eventually form the brain and spinal cord start out as a flat sheet. The sheet then rolls into a tube, called a neural tube. The neural tube closes over around the fourth week of pregnancy. Folic acid helps this process to occur.
Low folic acid levels may cause incomplete closure of the neural tube and spine. A subsequent birth defect may occur, such as spina bifida, anencephaly, or encephalocele.
How much folic acid do women need?
All people need folic acid for healthy cells to occur. But folic acid is especially important in a woman’s diet prior to conception and in early pregnancy before she may miss her period and know she is pregnant. Most specialists recommend a dose of 400 to 800 mcg each day. If there is a personal or family history of neural tube defects, a dose of 4,000 mcg per day is recommended.
What is a good source of folic acid?
Fruits and vegetables are a good source of folic acid. These include beans, spinach, Romaine lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, peanuts, oranges, and grapefruits. Fortified breads, pasta, and cereals have been enriched with folic acid and are also a good source of dietary folic acid.
However, a dietary source of folic acid alone is not sufficient for all the body’s folic acid needs. Prenatal vitamins contain folic acid and their use is encouraged prior to conception and once pregnancy has occurred. Additional folic acid supplementation is added for a personal or family history of neural tube defects, or in certain medical conditions such as sickle cell disease. Patients on certain medications such as diphenylhydantoin, aminopterin, or carbamazepine (medications used for epilepsy) may need their medication levels periodically checked while taking folic acid.
In conclusion, folic acid is an important vitamin for a woman’s health and for the proper development of a healthy baby.
If you have further questions regarding folic acid or other pre conceptual or pregnancy related concerns, feel free to discuss these issues with one of our providers.
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Northwest Women's Consultants
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