Why is folic acid important in pregnancy and when trying to conceive?

Why is folic acid important in pregnancy and when trying to conceive?

Why is folic acid important in pregnancy and when trying to conceive?

Why is taking a folic acid supplement so important?

Whether you are thinking about your journey to start a family or have been trying to conceive for some time, an important nutrient you might have come across is folic acid. The UK Department of Health recommends that all women who are planning a pregnancy should be taking a folic acid supplement in addition to a varied and nutritionally balanced diet. This is because, unlike most other vitamins, it is very difficult to get the recommended amount of folic acid for pregnancy from diet alone.

Despite this, researchers found that, amongst nearly 500,000 women who were questioned, fewer than one in three took folic acid before becoming pregnant.

What is folic acid and why is it important?

Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, brown rice, granary bread and also in cereals which are fortified with folic acid. The Government is also considering fortifying flour with folic acid because it is so important. At this point it would be useful to mention that you may see folic acid also being called folate. Folate is another form of folic acid that is naturally found in food, whereas folic acid is the man-made form found in most supplements. Your body converts folic acid into folate before it can be used. For now, it’s easier to think about them as being the same thing.

Folic acid has a number of important roles in the body, such as helping you to make healthy red blood cells. For now we will focus on its role in the early part of pregnancy. Folic acid helps your baby’s brain and spinal cord to develop properly and help prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. In the UK, around 1000 pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects each year.

When and how much folic acid should you take?

Most women planning a pregnancy should take a daily supplement containing 400 micrograms of folic acid on top of what they should already be getting from a healthy balanced diet.

You should ideally start to take folic acid 2-3 months before you are planning to start a family, so that you have the right level in your body when you conceive. You should then carry on taking it for at least 12 weeks into your pregnancy to maintain the right amount for those crucial first few weeks when your baby’s brain and spinal cord are developing, reducing the risk of your baby developing a neural tube defect by 70%.

Some women may have a higher risk of their pregnancy being affected by a neural tube defect. This might be if you or your partner have any history of neural tube defects in your families, or in previous pregnancies. There is also an increased risk if you have diabetes, are taking anti-epilepsy medicines or in women who are obese with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30. If this is the case, you may need to take a higher daily dose of 5 milligrams, which your GP can prescribe if it’s appropriate for you. If you have any medical conditions or allergies, it’s always best to check with your doctor before starting to take a folic acid supplement just in case it’s not suitable for you.

What if you haven’t been taking folic acid before you become pregnant?

Firstly, don’t panic! If you are already taking a supplement designed specifically for fertility or for pregnancy, just check the ingredients. Chances are it may already contain 400 micrograms of folic acid, or folate, per daily dose. Not all supplements do, so it’s best to check and, if it doesn’t already contain folic acid or folate, then start taking some as soon as you can, as long as it’s not something you need to check with your GP first, as mentioned above.

If you are now more than 12 weeks pregnant and have not been taking a folic acid supplement, it’s important to know that the chances of your baby developing a neural tube defect are still very small. For example, spina bifida is found in only 6 out of every 10,000 babies. Talk to your GP or midwife about any concerns you have so that they can keep a close watch on your baby’s health as part of your routine antenatal care.

So, the takeaway messages are, as long as there are no other health concerns:

Eat a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet every day which is rich in folic acid containing foods, such as green leafy vegetables, brown rice, granary bread and cereals which are fortified with folic acid

Make sure you are taking your daily dose of 400 micrograms of folic acid, either on its own or contained within another fertility supplement. If you take a multivitamin supplement, do make sure it doesn’t contain vitamin A (also known as retinol), which is harmful in pregnancy if you take too much. It’s important to do this in addition to eating foods rich in folic acid

Get into a routine of taking your folic acid every day, perhaps in the morning with breakfast, so that you don’t forget


References

1. Why do I need folic acid in pregnancy? [Online content accessed 14.04.20] https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/pregnancy/why-do-i-need-folic-acid-in-pregnancy/
2. Bestwick JP, Huttly WJ, Morris JK, Wald NJ. Prevention of neural tube defects: a cross-sectional study of the uptake of folic acid supplementation in nearly half a million women. PLoS One. 2014;9(2):e89354. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089354 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3929694/
3. Proposal to add folic acid to flour: consultation document [Online content accessed 15.04.20] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/adding-folic-acid-to-flour/proposal-to-add-folic-acid-to-flour-consultation-document
4. Beaudin A.E., Stover P.J. Insights into metabolic mechanisms underlying folate-responsive neural tube defects: a minireview. 2009 Apr;85(4):274-84. doi: 10.1002/bdra.20553.
5. HS UK: Folic acid [Online content accessed 14.04.20] https://www.nhs.uk/medicines/folic-acid/
6. PHE Screening: New spina bifida and anencephaly information leaflets for parents published [Online content accessed 15.04.20] https://phescreening.blog.gov.uk/2019/02/19/new-spina-bifida-and-anencephaly-information-leaflets-for-parents-published/
7. NHS UK: Conditions/Spinda bifida [Online content accessed 16.04.20} https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/spina-bifida/causes/
8. NHS UK: Vitamins, supplements and nutrition in pregnancy [Online content accessed 16.04.20] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/vitamins-minerals-supplements-pregnant/

Written on 16.04.20 Reviewed by 16.04.23