Folic Acid and Pregnancy: Why Is It So Important?

Thinking of starting a family? Folate, also known as folic acid, plays a vital role in supporting healthy growth and development during this phase. Let's look into why this B vitamin is so essential for when you are pregnant and even when you're not. 

Folate is essential because it helps prevent birth defects, specifically neural tube defects like spina bifida, which can occur in the early stages of pregnancy while the brain and spinal cord are forming. The good news is that most of these defects can be avoided by ensuring you have sufficient folate, whether from folate-rich foods or supplements.



How Folic Acid Prevents Neural Tube Defects in Pregnancy

The Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences recommended that all women who can become pregnant get 400 mcg of folic acid each day, in addition to consuming food with folate from a varied diet, to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.

Additionally, folic acid supplementation in early pregnancy may help prevent cleft lip and cleft palate.

Protecting Your Babies Heart

Approximately 13 babies a day are born with congenital heart disease in the UK. This is such a sad reality for these babies and their parents, however hope is on the horizon for expectant parents as research shows that maternal folic acid supplementation can significantly decrease the risk of these heart issues. Therefore we hope to see this number decline in years to come with greater awareness. 

Folate-Rich Foods: Nature's Source

Folate can be naturally found in various foods, but it's worth noting that it can be sensitive to heat and water, making it important to prepare folate-rich foods gently. Some excellent sources include:

  • Vegetables (broccoli, spinach, green beans, and more)
  • Fruits (avocado, oranges, berries, and bananas)
  • Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, and others)
  • Eggs and nuts
  • Juices (such as apple and orange juices)

There’s no guarantee that you will get enough folic acid from food alone, so a supplement is important. If you have morning sickness in early pregnancy, it may be difficult to eat enough fortified foods to get the folic acid you need.

folate high foods

When to Start Taking Folic Acid Supplements

Planning to start a family? It's recommended to begin taking a daily folic acid supplement at least one month before actively trying to conceive and continue during your first trimester. If you haven't used folic acid supplements before, start as soon as you discover you're pregnant.

Folic Acid and Breastfeeding

Folic acid, a crucial B vitamin, continues its role in maternal and child health even after pregnancy. While it's widely recognised for its importance during pregnancy, its benefits extend into the breastfeeding period as well.

Safety and Benefits

Folic acid is a normal component of breast milk and is safe for both the mother and baby when taken as a supplement during breastfeeding. It passes into breast milk in small amounts, which are not harmful to the baby. In fact, these amounts are beneficial, as they help ensure that both the mother and the baby receive adequate nutrients during this critical period.

Maternal Health and Milk Quality

For breastfeeding mothers, maintaining adequate folic acid levels is essential for their own health and to ensure the quality of their breast milk. Folic acid plays a key role in the production of red blood cells and helps prevent anaemia, which can be a concern post-pregnancy. It also contributes to the mother's overall well-being, which is crucial for effective and nurturing breastfeeding.

Impact on Infant Development

The folic acid in breast milk contributes to the healthy growth and development of the infant. It is vital for the baby's developing immune system, cell division, and growth. Adequate folic acid levels in breast milk can help ensure that the baby's nutritional needs are met, supporting healthy development during these formative months.

Recommendations for Breastfeeding Mothers

Health experts recommend that breastfeeding mothers continue to take folic acid supplements. This ensures that their own nutritional needs are met and that their breast milk contains sufficient folic acid for the baby's development. The recommended dosage typically remains the same as during pregnancy, but it's always best to consult with a Doctor for personalised advice.

Folate vs. Folic

What is folic acid and what is it in relation to folate/methylfolate?

Both are different forms of vitamin B9, but there are distinct differences between the two.

The naturally occurring and active form of vitamin B9 is methylfolate, and this is found in foods.

Methylfolate, unlike folic acid, can cross both cell membranes and blood-brain barriers, making it a far more convenient and effective form to utilise.

Folic acid is a man-made, synthetic form of folate. Once inside the body, folic acid needs to be converted to its active form, methylfolate. The problem is many of us don't convert folic acid to methylfolate efficiently and this man-made chemical is left to float around in the blood stream.

Due to the risks associated with taking synthetic folic acid it is safer and more effective to take the natural form.

When choosing a supplement always look for methylfolate on the label at a minimum dosage of 400mcg.

Determining Your Folic Acid Needs

Generally, aiming for a supplement with at least 400 micrograms (mcg or µg) of folic acid when trying to conceive or during early pregnancy is advised. You can find standalone folic acid supplements.

And if you're looking for quality folic acid supplements, consider checking out Ethical Nutrition's Methylfolate Folic Acid. It's never too early to start prioritising your and your baby's health during this special journey!