Pre-Pregnancy Folic Acid and Prevention of Birth Defects

While many of us know how important good nutrition is during pregnancy, not everyone is aware of the impact your diet prior to the pregnancy can have on the baby. Of the many steps any woman planning to conceive should take, adding certain nutrients to her diet is one of the most important.

One of these nutrients is folate, a B vitamin that has been shown to help prevent birth defects including neural tube defects such as spina bifida and also cleft lip and palate. Folate has the largest effect on preventing these defects when taken prior to and in the very early stages of pregnancy.

Folate and Folic Acid

Folate is the term used to describe the naturally occurring version of this vitamin in foods such as fruits and vegetables. When you hear the term folic acid, this refers to the synthetic version of the vitamin which is used to fortify foods and also appears in supplements. Thus, when you look for this important nutrient on the list of vitamins in your prenatal supplement, it will appear as folic acid.

How long before pregnancy should folate be increased?

To get the full preventative effects of folate, you should start increasing your intake at least one month prior to pregnancy. However, folate is very good for you, and there is no reason not to increase your intake even if you don’t plan to become pregnant for some time. Not only will it improve your own health, but should a surprise pregnancy occur your body will be ready. It’s a good idea for all women of childbearing age to include extra folate in their diet, or take a supplement that includes folic acid. You should continue to get enough folic acid throughout the first trimester of pregnancy at least, but continuing right through your pregnancy will be good for both you and baby, especially since folate has also been linked with preventing premature birth.

How much folate do I need?

Women should get at least 400 micrograms of folate each day prior to pregnancy, and should increase that amount to 600 micrograms as soon as pregnancy is confirmed. You can get too much folic acid, however, so stick to under 1000 micrograms unless your doctor recommends more due to a history of neural tube defects in previous pregnancies. In this case, a larger dose may be recommended for both the pre-pregnancy period and into the first trimester. Studies have shown this may prevent recurrence of the defect in subsequent pregnancies.

Which foods contain folate?

Folate occurs naturally in lentils, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, citrus fruits such as oranges, and peanuts. It is also often added to cereals, breads, and pasta, so check the label to see if your choice has been fortified with folic acid.

It can be difficult to get enough folate from foods, so women planning to become pregnant should add a supplement containing the recommended amount. Check the label of your multivitamin to make sure it supplies enough folic acid. Prenatal supplements should include folic acid, but be sure the amount is right, and add an extra supplement if necessary to meet your 600 microgram requirement.

The importance of folate to a healthy pregnancy can’t be overstated. It is believed that taking an increased amount of folic acid could prevent up to 70% of neural tube defects in the US. Take this simple step before you are pregnant, to protect your baby even before conception.

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