The Importance of Folic Acid



Why it is important during pregnancy, recommended amounts and what to do if you are deficient.

Have you ever sat around with your group of girlfriends and talked about your folic acid levels? No? Me neither. Many of us have heard about folic acid but may or may not fully realize the importance. Folic acid (Vitamin B9) helps the body make new healthy cells. The vitamin helps form red blood cells and produce DNA, the building block of the human body, which carries genetic information.   

Including folic acid as part of your daily nutrition before and during pregnancy is a major component of having a healthy baby and being a healthy mom for many reasons. Folic acid decreases the risk of many birth defects—especially those involving the spine and brain. Probably the most common birth defects resulting from insufficient folic acid levels are spina bifida, which is incomplete development of the spinal cord or vertebrae, and anencephaly, which is incomplete development of major parts of the brain. These defects are scary and often mean either incompatibility with life or lifelong developmental delays. The neural tube develops into the brain and spinal cord, and these birth defects often occur in the first three to four weeks of pregnancy.      

Because the spinal cord and brain begin developing in the first three to four weeks post-conception, it is important to have folic acid in your system prior to pregnancy for optimal benefit.

Dr. Thomas M. Lancaster, Sunflower Neonatology Associates/Overland Park Regional Medical Center, states, “The supplementation should start before women conceive because neural tube defects occur very early in embryonic  development (often before women know that they are pregnant).” Once pregnant, you can receive a prescription prenatal from your doctor. If you have picked out your own over-the-counter vitamin, make sure it has the recommended folic acid level.”

Ensuring your body has adequate amounts of folic acid also can decrease risk of cleft palate/lip, premature birth, low birth weight, miscarriage and poor growth in utero. In addition, there are also benefits to mom. Appropriate levels can decrease pregnancy complications and decrease risk for heart disease, stroke, some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease (http://www.WebMD.com).   

While folic acid can be found synthetically in certain foods, most women don’t get the recommended amounts consistently. While there are some grains that are enriched with folate, such as cereal, bread, pasta and rice, other foods are naturally rich in the nutrient, including dried beans and peas, dark green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and asparagus, citrus fruits, lentils and many juices (http://www.BabyCenter.com). The recommended daily intake of folic acid is 400 micrograms (mcg), with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommending 600 mcg once pregnant. There are instances where the recommendation level can be different, so please contact your health professional if you have questions or need additional guidance.

Jessica Heine, RN, lives in Olathe with her husband and two young children.

As always, please consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns.

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