By: Natasha Lowe Osho MD, FACOG, NASM CPT, Pre/Postnatal Performance Training Specialist
One of the first things we do after celebrating a positive pregnancy test, is start prenatal vitamins. What if I told you the best time to start vitamins is before pregnancy? The is because of the importance of folic acid. Let’s spend a few moments learning about this amazing vitamin.
What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is a member of the Vitamin B family. It plays a key role in the development of cells. During pregnancy, this vitamin is very important for organogenesis. Organogenesis is a fancy word for the beginning of baby’s organ development. It occurs during weeks 4-8 after conception. Before most women even realize they are pregnant, baby’s organs are already forming! Folic acid is essential for normal brain and spinal cord development.
What happens if I don’t have enough folic acid?
During early pregnancy, not having enough folic acid can lead to neural tube defects in baby. Neural tube defects are abnormalities of the brain and/or spinal cord. It is the second most common type of birth defect in the US. The most common type of neural tube defect is spina bifida. These defects can range from mild to severe, and some can even be lethal.
How do I lower my baby’s risk of a neural tube defect?
To lower the risk for neural tube defects, it is recommended that you intake at least 400mcg folic acid each day beginning 1 month prior to pregnancy. Remember organ development begins before most women realize they are pregnant. This is the reason I recommend that young reproductive aged women start taking vitamins before pregnancy. Even if you are not planning for pregnancy, a good multivitamin will make up for the vitamins and minerals we lack in our food choices.
If you are high risk for neural tube defects (you were born with a neural tube defect, your partner was born with a neural tube defect, or you and/or your partner’s child was born with a neural tube defect), you should have 4mg folic acid each day beginning 3 months prior to pregnancy. This should be taken as a separate folic acid supplement. Do not “double” up on your prenatal or multivitamins, because this can lead to vitamin toxicity.
What is the difference between Folate and Folic Acid?
Folate is the naturally occurring and found in foods such as green leafy vegetables. Folic acid is the synthetic form of Folate that is added to foods during processing. Typically, this is seen with “fortified” or “enriched” grains and cereals. The addition of folic acid to food helps to ensure an adequate amount in our diets. Despite this difference, both forms are easily used by the body and are effective in preventing neural tube defects.
Is Folate Better than Folic Acid?
In my opinion, it is always preferred to get important vitamins and minerals directly from food. But, for many of us, having a consistently well balanced and nutritious diet can be hard. Maybe it’s the lack of time during the day to shop and cook, or having limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This is where a good multivitamin can help make up for what we lack in our food choices.
What foods should I eat to get Folate and Folic Acid?
Green, leafy vegetables and whole grains are packed with folate. Examples of other high folate containing foods are spinach, black eye peas, and enriched or fortified grains and cereals. It is important to remember that well balanced food choices will likely provide most nutrients your body needs.
In summary, here are three key takeaways:
- Folic acid/Folate are important for the prevention of abnormal brain and spinal cord development.
- If you are low risk, start taking a multivitamin containing 400mcg of folic acid beginning 1 month before pregnancy. For high-risk women, you will need 4mg folic acid beginning 3 months before pregnancy.
- Supplements provide us with the vitamins and minerals we lack in our food choices, but it is always best to get as many vitamins and minerals from whole foods.
Hopefully this provides some insight on the importance of folic acid, inspires you to make well balanced and nutritious food choices, and start taking a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin before pregnancy.
“General Information about NTDs, Folic Acid, and Folate,” https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/faqs/faqs-general-info.html
“Folate Fact Sheet for Health Professionals,” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/
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