The Role of Folic Acid During Pregnancy
Pregnancy can be such an exciting, nerve-wracking, exhilarating, and emotional time. Plus every other human emotion possible. It also tends to open the door for everyone and their grandmothers to give all the advice you ever wanted, and a lot of advice you didn’t want. With all this information, it can sometimes be difficult to navigate exactly what does or doesn’t apply to you, or make sense to you. One huge topic of conversation when it comes to prenatal care is the intake of folic acid. Wondering if this supplement is necessary and why? Let’s clear up some of the confusion.
What is Folic Acid?
We’ll get more into this later, but folic acid is a synthetic form of a naturally occuring B vitamin known as folate. Folate is responsible for cell growth and many other roles in the body. It helps the body to make new red blood cells. Without these, someone can develop anemia. It’s essential for DNA and genetic material, which of course makes sense why it’s so important during pregnancy. Folate deficiency tends to be rare in countries where they have adequate food sources. Your needs change during pregnancy, along with your folic acid requirements.
Folic Acid vs Folate
One part of the folic acid conversation that often leads to confusion is understanding folic acid vs folate. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Folate isn’t one specific nutrient. Instead, it’s an umbrella term for a group of compounds that have similar nutritional properties. Vitamin B9, for example, naturally occurs as folate. Folate is responsible for cell growth, DNA formation, and a lot of other important jobs. Because it’s naturally occurring, you can find folate in many foods, leafy greens being one of the best sources. Folic acid, on the other hand, is a synthetic version of vitamin B9. If you really want to dig into the science, it’s also called pteroylmonoglutamic acid.
While folate is naturally found in foods, folic acid is often added to processed foods like breakfast cereal, flour, and bread. Another distinct difference is that the body can’t always process folic acid into vitamin B9 as efficiently as it can with folate. This may lead to elevated levels of unmetabolized folic acid in the bloodstream, although researchers are unclear about any long-term side effects of this.
The Importance of Folic Acid During Pregnancy
Folic acid is one of the most widely recommended supplements during pregnancy and when someone is preparing their body for pregnancy – why is that? Like we’ve mentioned before, folate and folic acid are essential not only for your health, but the development of your baby. It helps the body to make healthy cells, and helps form the neural tube during early pregnancy. This is the part of the developing fetus that turns into the early brain and spine, with defects occurring around three to four weeks after conception.
Because the neural tube develops often before a person knows they are pregnant, many providers recommended increasing your intake of folic acid and folate if you are trying to conceive in order to help prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain or spine The chances of having a baby with a neural tube defect are about 0.1% to 0.2%, although this varies depending on your family history and where you live. Two of the most common neural tube defects are spina bifida which affects the spinal cord and anencephaly which is a brain defect. Folic acid may also help reduce the risk of cleft palate in babies, heart irregularities, and preterm birth.
Increasing Your Folic Acid Intake
We already mentioned that leafy greens are one of the best sources of naturally occurring folate. Some other foods high in folate include brussels sprouts, nuts and beans, avocados, and asparagus. The United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people who are trying to become pregnant consume 4,000 micrograms of folic acid each day before becoming pregnant, and through the first three months of pregnancy. Many multivitamins, especially prenatal supplements, have adequate amounts of folic acid in them. These are easy to find at health food stores and online retailers. Some people who have experienced miscarriages or difficulties with conception may have a certain gene mutation (MTHFR gene) that prevents your body from being able to properly process folate. This gene mutation is fairly common (about one in three women). It may benefit people with this mutation to take methylated folate as it doesn’t need to be converted to a usable form like folic acid does.
If you are experiencing difficulties with fertility or already pregnant, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider before starting a new vitamin or supplement. They can help determine the best source for you, as well as the best kind to take.
Natasha (she/her) is a full-spectrum doula and health+wellness copywriter. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, health, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more education and empowerment. You can connect with Natasha on IG @natasha.s.weiss.