All nutrients are important for a healthy pregnancy but Folic Acid is without doubt the most important of them all. Here we highlight a few facts about what it is and why it is needed.
What is Folic Acid?
Folate is a B vitamin which can be found in foods such as leafy green veg e.g broccoli and spinach, citrus fruits such as oranges and peas, beans and lentils. Folic acid is the man made version of folate which can be produced as a supplement or added to foods such as breakfast cereals to fortify them. Usually getting your nutrients naturally from foods is preferable to taking a supplement; however, folic acid is the exception. Although you can get a certain amount from foods, you do need to take a supplement of 400ug daily to ensure you are getting the amount needed for a healthy pregnancy.
Why is folic acid important?
Folic acid is necessary during pregnancy for the normal folding and closure of the baby’s neural tube to form the brain and spinal cord. This occurs between day 21 – 28 after conception – when most women still don’t even know they are pregnant. Failure of the neural tube to close results in Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) of which Spina Bifida is the most common. Ireland has one of the highest rates of the condition in Europe (1.17 in 1000 live births).
Spina Bifida has been described as one of the most complex congenital conditions compatible with life and the burden on the child and the family is enormous especially when the child is born severely handicapped. Yet it is one of the very few easily preventable congenital malformations.
What can I do to make sure I am getting enough Folic acid and to significantly reduce the risk of an NTD?
Irish guidelines state that a folic acid supplement (400µg) should be taken daily for the 4 weeks before pregnancy as well as for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. But did you know that 50% of pregnancies in Ireland are unplanned? So by the time a lot of women do realise they are pregnant they have already passed the time period for the closure of the neural tube. That’s why it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to taking a daily folic acid supplement if you’re female, of childbearing age, and sexually active, even if you are not planning to become pregnant.