How having a good supply of folates influences a baby’s development
The importance of folic acid in your pregnancy
At the preconception visit, the gynaecologist recommends you take a folic acid supplement, even though you are not yet pregnant. We will now explain why you must follow that recommendation. Let’s shed some light on folic acid, also known as folate or vitamin B9.
Folates to fight neural tube defects in your baby
Folic acid, folate or vitamin B9 is one of the most important nutrients in a woman's life, especially if she wants to get pregnant, because good levels are essential for the baby to grow healthy and to prevent neural tube defects or NTDs.
Neural tube defects occur when the structures that protect the nervous system do not form or close. It can affect the spinal cord or the brain. Spina bifida is the most common condition and this occurs when there is an opening at the base of that neural tube and the spinal cord protrudes through the spine.
Anencephaly: brain tissue that does not develop
In the most severe situations, such as babies suffering from anencephaly, brain tissue does not form. This was the case of little Rodrigo, a baby boy who was born without a nose or eyes and part of his skull missing in Portugal. Most babies with anencephaly die before birth or survive only a few days outside of the mother’s womb.
Studies confirming the benefits of folic acid
In the 1990s, several studies showed that women who in a previous pregnancy had had a child with neural tube problems, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, and were therefore at high risk of having another baby with the same condition, reduced the risk by more than 70% if they took a folic acid supplement before becoming pregnant.
Since then, associations of gynaecologists and obstetricians recommend that women take these food supplements three months before getting pregnant. Here's what you need to know about folic acid and how important it is for your pregnancy.
Your queries about folic acid are answered here
What is folic acid?
It is a vitamin B complex naturally found in many foods, such as leafy green vegetables, whole grains, meat and fruit. Folic acid is a soluble vitamin, which means it is not stored in fatty tissues and our bodies hardly keep any reserves. In fact, levels of it drop a few weeks after they are needed or if you have a low-folate diet.
How it works in your body and why it is important for your pregnancy
- It is involved in the formation of the foetus’s neural tube, which will become the baby’s spinal cord. The neural tube closes in the sixth week of pregnancy, just four weeks after conception, when the mother-to-be is still not sure she is pregnant.
- It protects healthy cells and plays an essential role in the production of red blood cells, preventing some forms of anaemia, such as megaloblastic anaemia, which is when there are not enough red blood cells or haemoglobin levels are low.
- It helps to produce serotonin, and several studies have shown that there is a link between serotonin deficiency and depression, which is very common in the postpartum period.
- Folic acid works with vitamin B12 and vitamin C to help the body break down, use and make new proteins.
- It is involved in ADN and RNA synthesis, where all cell genetic information is found.
- It is indispensable for the body to produce new healthy cells, a process that is
- essential in pregnancy.
- Together with vitamins B6 and B12, folic acid normalises homocysteine levels, which,
- when very high, are related to coagulation problems. These, in turn, are related to
- recurrent miscarriages.
What is the recommended amount?
- In non-pregnant women, about 200 mcg are needed per day.
- For women who want to get pregnant and once pregnant, 400 mcg are needed per day.
- Specialists recommend that women who have already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect consume 4,000 mcg of folic acid a day.
When to start taking folic acid supplements
We know that the neural tube begins to form in the first weeks after conception. You should therefore start taking folic acid three months before conception, even though it is impossible to know when you will get pregnant.
That’s why, gynaecologists and experts recommend that women start taking them from the moment they decide to become a mother, before abandoning contraceptive methods. In this way, when the magical moment of union between the egg and the sperm occurs, the mother's reserves of folic acid are at optimum levels. If you wait until the pregnancy test is positive, it is already too late: the embryo's neural tube will already have closed so it is not possible to prevent possible defects.
Why there may be a deficit of folic acid
Many circumstances can lead to folic acid deficiency:
- Pathologies such as Crohn's disease or celiac disease that prevent vitamin B9 from being absorbed in the intestine.
- Eating well-cooked vegetables, as the heat destroys this the vitamin.
- Oral contraceptives interfere with the absorption of many vitamins, including vitamin B9 and folates.
Where to find folic acid naturally
Folates are naturally found in large quantities in leafy green vegetables. Add these vegetables to your diet and try to eat them raw as much as possible, or only lightly cooked:
- Green beans
The term "folate" is from the Latin word folium (which means leaf). It is also found in whole grains, in offal, such as liver and kidneys, and in fruits with vitamin C. In other words, it is a nutrient that is easy to find in many foods, but it presents a problem: it is very easily destroyed by cooking.