A lot of people knows folic acid as the pregnancy vitamin. But what exactly is folic acid?
Folic acid, also known as folate is part of the vitamin B group. Your body needs it to produce red blood cells to prevent anaemia and it is an important chemical component of the nervous systems. It is also essential for the production, repair and functioning of DNA. However, folic acid's role in pregnancy has been proven to be particularly important for the development of the nervous system and to prevent neural tube birth defects, such as spina bifida.
In Australia, about 70 babies per year are born with a neural tube defect, which is around 2.5 in every 10,000 babies born! It occurs in the first weeks of pregnancy, when the brain and spinal cord are forming. Women who don't get enough folate may likely increase the chance of miscarriage! (1)
When should I start taking folic acid?
Women of child-bearing age should take extra folate daily to prevent neural tube defects. Even if you are not planning to have a baby, you should increase your folate intake because half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned.
Recommended daily dose of folic acid should be taken at least one month before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy.(3) By doing so, 7 out of 10 cases of neural tube defects can be prevented. Neural tube defects occur at a very early stage of development, before many women even know they are pregnant - which is why it is important to take folic acid before starting to try to conceive.
What dietary source contains Folic Acid?
Most women don't get enough folate from their diet. Many foods are naturally rich in folate. However folate is water-soluble and easily destroyed by cooking. It is best for vegetables to be lightly cooked or eaten raw. Cooking by microwave or steaming is best.
Should I take a supplement?
The recommended daily intake of folic for women is 400mcg daily. Once you are pregnant, the need for folic acid supplements increase exponentially. Women should take 600mcg of folic acid from their normal diet. If you are planning a pregnancy or in the first trimester of pregnancy, you should take a daily supplement containing 500mcg of folic acid (4)
It is BEST to take a prenatal supplement to ensure daily nutrient intake is sufficient. Getting enough folic acid is particularly important for the rapid cell growth of the placenta and your developing baby.
2. Scholl TO, Johnson WG. Folic acid: influence on the outcome of pregnancy. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000; 71(Suppl):1295S–1303S.
Dr Nicole Ng (MBBS) is a medical doctor with a passion in women's health and medical research