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Is Folic Acid Important for Pregnancy?

Is Folic Acid Important for Pregnancy?

In the course of your pregnancy, you’ve probably already heard your doctor talk about folate or folic acid. What exactly are these nutrients? Is folic acid really important for pregnancy? Find out here.

Folate and folic acid: What’s the difference?

Folate is any type of vitamin B9, which is naturally found in foods like leafy greens. Folic acid, on the other hand, does not occur naturally. In other words, it’s the man-made form of folate. Usually, it’s added in the process of “food fortification,” wherein we enrich food with vitamins and minerals.

While the two have differences, they serve the same purpose, which is to help us make new red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.

Is folic acid important for pregnancy?

Everyone needs folic acid or folate, especially pregnant women. Research has linked folic acid deficiency to the development of neural tube defects. These are conditions that pertain to the incomplete development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. The three most common types of neural tube defects are:

Spina bifida. This condition happens when the spinal cord and the spinal column do not completely close.

Encephalocele. Is a type of neural tube defect wherein some of the baby’s brain tissues “protrude out” through an opening in the skull.

Anencephaly. This neural tube defect occurs when there is severe brain underdevelopment (the brain doesn’t completely form).

Doctors are still not sure why folic acid is so important in preventing neural tube defects. Most experts believe it’s because B9 plays a huge role in DNA development.

What if you are not pregnant? Do you still need enough folate or folic acid?

The answer is yes. Folic acid is important for red blood cell formation. Without enough B9 to help you make red blood cells, you might suffer from folate-deficiency anemia.

is folic acid important for pregnancy

What are some important reminders when taking folic acid?

While we mostly hear that folic acid is important for pregnancy, doctors emphasize that the adequate intake of vitamin B9 is essential for all women in their reproductive years. This is due to the fact that neural tube defects develop in the first few weeks of being pregnant, usually before a woman even knows that she has conceived. Furthermore, many pregnancies happen unintentionally for reasons due to missed calculations or malfunctioning birth control (e.g. broken condom).

How much folic acid do I need?

Now that we understand why folic acid is important for pregnancy, it’s time to ask: How much folic acid do we need?

According to the World Health Organization, the recommended daily intake for folic acid is 400 micrograms. That could increase depending on your situation. For instance, the doctor may advise a daily intake of at least 4,000 micrograms if you or your partner:

  • Had a baby with a neural tube defect before and want to get pregnant again
  • Know about a family member who had spina bifida
  • Have spina bifida and want to get pregnant

If you have diabetes or are taking medications for an epileptic condition, talk to your doctor about the proper folate dosage for you.

Where can I get folic acid?

There are 3 ways to ensure that you’re getting enough folate or folic acid: add folate-rich food to your diet, eat food fortified with folic acid, and take a supplement with folic acid in it.

Add folate-rich food to your diet

To get adequate amounts of folate or folic acid before and during pregnancy, try these folate-rich foods:

Eat food fortified with folic acid

The most common enriched foods with folic acid are:

  • White rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereals

When choosing fortified foods, be sure to look for those that have 100% of the daily value of folic acid.

Take supplements

Since folic acid is important for pregnancy, you can also consider taking a multivitamin supplement that has 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid in it. To determine the best vitamin supplement for you, it’s best to talk to your doctor.

Can you take too much folic acid?

According to experts, yes, it’s possible to take too much folic acid before and during pregnancy. While you cannot get too much of the naturally occurring folate, you can take excessive amounts of folic acid from supplements and fortified foods. Too much folic acid can be a cause of concern since it can hide B12 deficiency symptoms, which often result in nerve damage.

Key takeaways

Folic acid is important for pregnancy mainly because it can prevent the occurrence of neural tube defects like spina bifida, anencephaly, and encephalocele. However, even women who are not pregnant should get adequate amounts through a folate-rich diet or vitamin supplements.

Learn more about Being Pregnant here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Folic Acid
https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/about.html#:~:text=Why%20folic%20acid%20is%20important,and%20spine%20(spina%20bifida).
Accessed October 19, 2020

Why do I need folic acid in pregnancy?
https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/pregnancy/why-do-i-need-folic-acid-in-pregnancy/
Accessed October 19, 2020

Folic acid
https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/folic-acid
Accessed October 19, 2020

Daily iron and folic acid supplementation during pregnancy
https://www.who.int/elena/titles/guidance_summaries/daily_iron_pregnancy/en/
Accessed October 19, 2020

Folic Acid and Pregnancy
https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/preg-folic-acid.html
Accessed October 19, 2020

Pregnancy and Nutrition: Folate and Preventing Neural Tube Defects
https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthlinkbc-files/folate-neural-tube-defects
Accessed October 19, 2020

Picture of the author
Medically reviewed by Hello Doctor Medical Panel
Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N.
Updated Nov 20, 2020