By Karen B. Simon, M.D.
If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, there are many things you can do to increase your chances of having a healthy baby. Getting the recommended amount of folic acid every day should be near the top of your list since it plays an important role in preventing major birth defects during the first few weeks of pregnancy.
Folic acid, also known as folate, is the synthetic form of vitamin B9. It’s available in some foods, but most women will need to take a supplement to ensure they get enough of this critical nutrient to protect their developing baby.
Why Is Folic Acid Important?
Folic acid is important even if you are not pregnant or not planning to become pregnant. Your body is constantly making new cells, such as red blood cells, hair, skin and fingernails. It needs folic acid to make these cells and also to produce and repair your DNA.
During pregnancy, folic acid helps to prevent neural tube defects (NTD). The neural tube is the part of the developing embryo that eventually becomes the brain and spinal cord. Birth defects of the neural tube can be devastating, including:
- Spina bifida: The baby’s spine does not form correctly, which can lead to neurological problems such as muscle weakness and paralysis, bowel and bladder problems, seizures and orthopedic problems.
- Anencephaly: The baby is born without major portions of the brain and skull; unfortunately, babies with this birth defect do not survive more than a few hours after birth.
Research shows that getting enough folic acid may also help prevent other birth defects such as cleft lip, cleft palate and certain heart defects.
How Much Folic Acid Do You Need?
Experts recommend that women get at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. You should get this amount starting at least one month before becoming pregnant since folic acid is critical to the healthy development of your baby in the first few weeks of pregnancy.
Since it is important in early pregnancy, many organizations and experts recommend that all women of childbearing age get at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. Over half of pregnancies are unplanned and many women do not know that they are pregnant until after the critical developmental window when folic acid is most important.
Some women may need more folic acid than the recommended 400 micrograms per day. If you previously had a baby with a neural tube defect, your doctor will likely prescribe 4,000 micrograms per day. Women carrying twins and women with a genetic mutation that makes it harder to process folic acid will also need higher doses. In addition, if you have diabetes or take anti-seizure medications, you may have a higher chance of having a baby with a neural tube defect, and will, therefore, require more folic acid.
Certain foods are high in folic acid. Many cereals and breads are fortified with folic acid, and you’ll also find it in beans and lentils, dark leafy greens, broccoli, citrus fruits and avocados. However, most women do not eat these foods consistently enough to get the required amount of folic acid every day, so a supplement is usually needed.
About the Author
Dr. Simon specializes in Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN). She attempts to help patients become educated about their health and treatment options before they make decisions together.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Simon, please call 610-872-7660.