The Importance of Folic Acid in Your Diet Before and During Pregnancy
How this vital nutrient keeps you and your baby healthy
Folic acid is a B-complex vitamin supplement that helps our bodies to break down important amino and nucleic acids that help to keep us healthy. It is in some of the foods that we eat, but our bodies do not absorb much of it; therefore, it is important to take a vitamin supplement that contains folic acid.
The most important times to make sure that you are getting enough folic acid is before you become pregnant, and in your first month of pregnancy. Many pregnancies are not planned, so if you are of childbearing age, you should consume 0.4 milligrams (mg) of folic acid every day. Although some foods are fortified with folic acid, it still unclear how much folic acid the body absorbs from our diet alone.
Lack of folic acid can lead to neural tube defects
When folic acid is taken both before and during pregnancy to help protect your baby from developing a neural tube defect. Neural tube defects affect your baby’s nervous system while it is developing, which means a defect would develop during your first month of pregnancy. The most well-known defects are spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida usually leads to paralysis, whereas anencephaly – a condition where most of the brain fails to develop – almost always leads to stillbirth, or the death of the bay shortly afterwards.
Other types of neural tube defects include:
- Chiari malformation, a condition where the brain tissues extends into the baby’s spinal canal
- Encephaloceles, or protrusions of the brain through the skull
- Hydranencephaly, where part of the cerebral hemisphere fails to develop
- Iniencephaly, a condition which causes severe cervical bending, resulting in a child with no neck
Getting enough folic acid can prevent almost all of these defects. It also helps to prevent cleft lips and cleft palates, as well as some heart defects.1
If you were born with a neural tube defect, or if one of your children were born with a neural tube defect, or, if you are a Type 1 diabetic, you physician or midwife may encourage you to take a vitamin, or supplement that contains a specific amount of folic acid each day, starting three months before you become pregnant, and keep taking it during the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that, if it is possible for you to become pregnant, or if you are planning on becoming pregnant, you should take a vitamin, or supplement, that contains 0.4 to 0.8 milligrams (mg) of folic acid each day.1
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- Toriello, H. VTI (2011). Policy statement on folic acid and neural tube defects. Genetics in Medicine, 13, 593-596. doi: 10.1097/GIM.Ob013e31821d4188