Folic Acid

The importance of Folic Acid. This B group vitamin is vitally important in preconception and during the first three months of pregnancy. Widely acknowledged to be beneficial in your baby’s development, it is advisable to start taking this supplement as soon as you are planning a pregnancy or become pregnant.

Why is folic acid important?

Folic acid has been proven to reduce the risk of having a baby with skeletal deformities and neural tube defects by up to 70 per cent.

From the moment of conception and through the first three months of pregnancy, your baby’s spinal cord is forming. The spinal cord houses the central nervous system that transports messages via nerve impulses from the brain to every part of the body.

Spina bifida, which affects one in 600 pregnancies, occurs when the baby’s spine does not fully close up to protect the spinal cord that runs through its centre. Consequences such as paralysis of the legs, incontinence, skeletal deformities, undeveloped organs, malformations of the heart and blood vessels, cleft palate, nervous system disorders and mental retardation, have been linked to a deficiency of folic acid.

How much should I take?

If you are planning a pregnancy, take 500mcg a day and continue up until week 12 of your pregnancy. (Many over the counter supplements contain 500mcg of folate. If you are taking a multi-vitamin, check the level, as this may be lower).

If you have previously given birth to a baby with neural tube defect, if there is a family history of spina bifida, or if you have been on certain types of medication (for example, epilepsy drugs) you may need to increase your dosage. Speak to your health professional.

How it works

To some extent the roles of vitamin B12 and folic acid overlap. Both are needed in the synthesis of DNA, the complex protein chain that is the basic substance of chromosomes and carries the genetic coding that governs cell metabolism. When either B12 or folic acid is deficient, the duplication of the chromosomes cannot occur at the normal rate and the reproduction of cells is slowed.

What foods contain folic acid?

Folic acid is abundant in bright green foliage and leafy vegetables. Pumpkin, avocados, peas, dried beans and wholegrain bread are also good sources. Canning, overcooking and discarding cooking water can result in significant losses of folic acid by at least half. Therefore, it is advisable to supplement your dietary intake.

Why are many women deficient in folic acid?

Diet alone is probably not the answer. Research indicates that use of the contraceptive pill for prolonged periods can lower folic acid levels. Often women are not told this when given a prescription. It may take up to four months after stopping the pill for tissue levels to return to what is considered normal.

Other findings

A pigmentation of the face that develops during pregnancy called melasma has been attributed to folic acid deficiency. A similar pigmentation is often seen on faces of women taking the contraceptive pill. In many of these cases, research has revealed folic acid deficiency, along with other deficiencies.

Interestingly, tests conducted on psychiatric patients have shown nearly half to be deficient in folic acid. Common symptoms include indifference, lack of motivation, withdrawal and depression.

It is thought one fifth of pregnant women are deficient in folic acid though the deficiencies may not be serious enough to cause structural defects that are apparent at birth.

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