Importance of folic acid during pregnancy

Importance of folic acid during pregnancy

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Every pregnant woman is given a host of advice by well-meaning friends and relatives. But any doctor would first advice you to start taking folic acid supplements on confirmation of your pregnancy. Apart from eating a healthy diet consisting of the right nutrients, folic acid supplements are recommended to be taken throughout the pregnancy and until the time you breastfeed. Other than the iron and calcium supplements, folic acid during pregnancy is one of the most important nutrients.

Folic acid during pregnancy is the most crucial and essential nutrient, especially in the first trimester. In fact, doctors recommend that folic acid supplements should be started, at least 2-3 months before planning for a pregnancy.

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What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a B vitamin (Vitamin B9). It occurs naturally in the form of folates in green leafy vegetables, whole grains, oranges, and pulses.

Well, composition-wise there is no difference between folate and folic acid. Folic acid is a man-made form of Vitamin B9 and folate is a naturally occurring form of Vitamin B9.

Folate plays an important role in the production of RBC (Red Blood Corpuscles) in your body, thus reducing your chances of getting anemia during pregnancy. It also helps your baby’s neural tube develop into the brain and the spinal cord. No wonder, it plays a superhero during your pregnancy and breastfeeding days.

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Importance of folic acid during pregnancy?

During pregnancy, your body works overtime to ‘build’ the baby. And it requires plenty of nutrients to build a hale and healthy baby.

We all know that proteins are the building blocks of our cells. It is the folic acid which helps the body break down, use and create protein to build cells, which would eventually grow into a baby. Let us understand what functions folic acid/folate performs in the body of a pregnant woman, which is beneficial to the baby:

  1. Folic acid plays a superhero in the first few weeks of pregnancy, as it helps in the proper closing of the neural tube, which is the precursor to the baby’s brain and spinal cord.
  2. It helps in creation, repair, and functioning of our genetic map i.e. DNA, which is the basic building block of the cells.
  3. It aids in the formation of Red Blood Corpuscles (RBC) in the baby.
  4. It is essential for rapid cell growth of the placenta.
  5. It helps in the formation of the fetal heart and circulatory system and also in lowering the chances of your baby having birth defects.
  6. Some researchers have confirmed that folic acid also lowers your baby’s risk of getting birth defects like cleft lip and cleft palate.
  7. Few researchers also suggest that it prevents autism and congenital heart defects in the baby.

Apart from being beneficial to the baby, folic acid is also beneficial to the mother. Let us understand how folic acid benefits a to-be mother:

  1. There are research reports that states that folic acid helps in preventing gestational diabetes and preterm labor in the mother.
  2. It helps the mother in maintaining an optimal level of hemoglobin and RBCs, thus preventing anemia.
  3. It reduces pregnancy complications like preeclampsia, a condition in which the pregnant woman has high blood pressure and swelling of feet, legs, and hands.

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What are neural tube defects?

Importance of folic acid during pregnancyImage Source: Prepare for Medical Exams – blogger

The neural tube is an embryonic part, which develops into the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Neural Tube Defects (NTDs) occur very early in pregnancy, sometimes before you know that you are pregnant. Folic acid helps in preventing NTDs such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Spina BifidaIn this, the development of the spinal cord/vertebrae in the baby is incomplete. This happens when the protective covering that grows around an unborn baby’s spinal cord doesn’t close properly, leaving a gap. This can cause permanent nerve damage and paralysis. Babies with this condition may be permanently disabled.

Anencephaly In this, major parts of the baby’s brain remain underdeveloped. Babies with this condition, usually don’t live long. Folate deficiencies in pregnant women can lead to the above-mentioned condition in the newborns.

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When should folic acid be taken?

Folate/folic acid should be there in your system in required levels, much before you get pregnant. This is because the birth defects usually occur in the very early stages of pregnancy.

The closing of the embryonic neural tube happens during the 4th week of pregnancy, and by then you might not even know that you are pregnant. So, it is better to start taking folic acid supplements at least a month before you start trying to conceive.

Gynaecologists recommend that you start taking the folic acid:

  • A month before you plan to conceive
  • Every day of your pregnancy
  • Until the time you breastfeed

How much folic acid should be taken?

The recommended dose of folic acid is 4 milligrams per day for adult women. For a pregnant woman or a breastfeeding mother, the recommended dosage is between 5 mg – 6 mg per day.

However, if you are overweight or diabetic or take medicines for epilepsy, your doctor might increase your dosage of folic acid. Also, if you are carrying twins, your doctor may double your dosage. So dear ladies, always consult a doctor if you have a medical condition and plan to get pregnant.

What are the natural sources of folic acid?

Folic acid occurs in natural form as folates, and is usually found in:

  • Lentils
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Oranges and other citrus fruits
  • Dried beans, peas, and nuts

Unfortunately, the folates in these get quickly destroyed during storage and during cooking.

Importance of folic acid during pregnancy

Why do you need to take folic acid supplements and not rely completely on natural sources?

Research has proven that our body absorbs folic acid from supplements, better than from the folates in naturally occurring sources.

Also, folates are water soluble vitamins. So, it can get easily destroyed during storage or while cooking or steaming. Also, it is assumed that only 50% of the folates consumed are utilized by the body, and since it is water soluble, the remaining is flushed out through urine.

So, doctors advise you to take folic acid supplements daily during pregnancy. But taking supplements doesn’t mean that you have to stop taking natural sources of folates.

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Why is folic acid needed when you are breastfeeding?

Folic acid is recommended for breastfeeding mothers as one of the most important nutrients. It helps in creation and maintenance of DNA, which are the building blocks of the cells.

This is passed on to the baby through the mother’s milk and can be beneficial to the baby. Also, a breastfeeding mother’s nutritional requirements are high which can be met by postnatal or breastfeeding supplements.

What are the effects of folic acid overdose?

Though we all know that not 100% of the folic acid consumed is utilized by the body, it is still possible to have excess folic acid in your body due to higher intake of supplements.

  • A new study has suggested that excess amount of Folate/Vitamin B9 in pregnant mothers, can increase the risk of the child developing an autism spectrum disorder. However, further research is being done on this subject to arrive at the optimal dosage.
  • It is important to understand that folic acid is a man-made supplement and normally not found in foods we consume or in our bodies. The conversion of folic acid to its naturally occurring form of folates is limited in humans. Also, folic acid does not cross the placenta like natural folates. Consuming too many supplements of folic acid can lead to unmetabolized folic acid in the blood, which can cause many health problems.
  • Excess folic acid is known to mask Vitamin B12 deficiency, depress immune function and enhance the progression of certain types of cancer.

When should you stop taking folic acid?

Folic Acid is an essential vitamin for adults as well as children. It’s deficiency can lead to anaemia, irritability, pale skin, poor digestion, and suppressed immune function. The daily requirement of folates for adult women who are not pregnant, is 400 mg per day and this amount is usually not met by the foods consumed.

There is no harm is continuing to take folic acid throughout your life. However, if you are consuming any other multivitamin supplements, it is better to avoid consuming folic acid supplement separately.

Finally, you should be aware that Vitamin B9/Folate/Folic Acid is an essential nutrient, both in prenatal and postnatal days. Always consume only the recommended dosage, as excess dosage can have detrimental effects. Never forget to inform your doctor about any medical conditions you have like obesity, diabetes, epilepsy etc. So that the doctor can decide the optimal dosage for you. Always remember that taking supplements is no excuse for skipping a nutritious and wholesome diet during pregnancy as well as breastfeeding time.

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