When you’re pregnant, nothing is more important than the health of your unborn baby. Certain measures can be taken to ensure the optimal health of your little one, such as the daily intake of a folic acid supplement.
What is folic acid?
Folic acid is an essential nutrient that is part of the vitamin B group. Also known as “vitamin B9,” “folate” or “folacin,” it plays a fundamental role in the proper functioning of a number of the body’s biological functions. It also ensures normal growth and development of the spine, brain and skull of the fetus in the first trimester of pregnancy. That’s why it is considered particularly important for pregnant women or for women who would like to get pregnant.
The human body needs folic acid when the cells are developing and multiplying very rapidly. During pregnancy, many of the body’s cells are required to grow and multiply, such as those of the placenta, the uterus, the blood and, especially, the developing fetus. Because it is an important vitamin for a smooth pregnancy and proper development of the fetus, specialists recommend that all women who want to have children or who are pregnant take a daily folic acid supplement.
Risks of folic acid deficiency during pregnancy
Taking sufficient folic acid during pregnancy helps prevent serious medical consequences for the fetus, such as neural tube defects, the most known being “spina bifida.” The neural tube forms in the third to fourth week of pregnancy. It is the precursor to the “central nervous system”: one end of the neural tube will form the brain and the rest will form the spinal cord. In the sixth week, the openings of the neural tube close up. Neural tube defects are the result of the neural tube not closing properly.
Neural tube defects cause serious and permanent after-effects in affected individuals. Spina bifida, for example, can lead to the following clinical manifestations:
- hydrocephalus, that is, an accumulation of liquid in the brain
- severe learning difficulties
- fecal or urinary incontinence
Meeting your daily folic acid requirements
Here are some examples of foods rich in folic acid:
- oranges (and orange juice)
- whole wheat bread
Yet although folic acid can be found in many foods, it can be difficult to achieve a sufficient daily intake from food alone. That’s why it is recommended that women take a pill supplement (0.4 to 1.0 mg or more) starting three months before getting pregnant and continuing until the end of the pregnancy. Some vitamin and mineral supplements available in pharmacies are specifically formulated to meet the needs of pregnant women and contain the right amount of folic acid. Ask your pharmacist for assistance.
If you are at high risk for giving birth to a child with a neural tube defect, your doctor may prescribe a supplement with a higher dose, up to 5 mg per day. This may be the case if:
- you have given birth to a child with a neural tube defect before
- you have a family history of neural tube defects, including spina bifida
- you suffer from alcoholism or you drink too much alcohol
- you have obesity
- you have diabetes
- you are taking medication for epilepsy
Your doctor and your pharmacist can advise you on the optimal dose of folic acid required in your case, according to your personal and medical situation and the recommendations currently in effect.