Folic Acid: What it is, and Why it’s Important

In recent years, folic acid has been the center of much focus due to the research showing its incredible importance for pregnant women. While everyone needs folic acid for a healthy diet, much of the research studying its effects has centered on the prevention of birth defects, particularly neural tube defects such as spina bifida.

Getting enough folic acid both prior to and during your pregnancy is an absolute must to protect your baby against serious birth defects as well as other problems.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is actually the synthetic version of a naturally occurring B-vitamin called folate. Thus when it is found in a natural food such as spinach, it is called folate. When it appears as an ingredient in a multivitamin supplement or is added to a food to fortify it, it is called folic acid. The function is the same no matter which form it takes. Folic acid is essential to the production of new cells in the body.

Why is folic acid important to pregnancy?

Recent research has shown that getting at least 400 micrograms of folic acid each day prior to pregnancy, and 600 micrograms during pregnancy, can reduce the occurrence of serious birth defects like spina bifida and anencephaly by 50-70%. While this is the most common benefit discussed in connection with folate, it’s not the only one suggested by the research.

Folic acid is also linked with a lower risk of cleft lip and palate, preterm birth, low birth weight, and preeclampsia in the mother. All of this information has led medical practitioners to recommend a daily supplement of folic acid to all women who are of childbearing age, and especially to those trying to conceive or already pregnant.

Why should it be taken before pregnancy?

The effects of folic acid on preventing birth defects are the strongest when the mother already has the required levels of the vitamin in her system prior to becoming pregnant. Also, many birth defects including those of the spine and brain as well as cleft lip and palate occur very early in pregnancy, often before the mother is even aware she is pregnant. If you wait until your pregnancy is confirmed to start taking folic acid supplements, it could be too late.

Still, even if you have not started taking extra folic acid before discovering your pregnancy, you haven’t lost your chance to reap other benefits from the vitamin. Begin taking a supplement the minute you find out you are pregnant, and you can still avoid problems like premature birth and low birth weight, among others.

Where can I get it?

Most multivitamin supplements for women contain the required amount of folic acid. You should make sure yours has at least 400 micrograms per dose. It’s also a good idea to make sure you add foods containing folic acid to your diet, such as citrus fruits and leafy greens. Try orange juice, spinach and broccoli, as well as foods that have been fortified with folic acid such as cereals and breads. As the popularity of folic acid spreads, more products with the vitamin added are appearing.

Although folic acid has only recently begun making headlines for its importance in pregnancy, it has always been an essential part of a balanced diet. Making it a part of your healthy eating plan will ensure you are healthy as well as ready should a pregnancy occur.

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