Folic Acid for a Healthy Baby

Folic Acid for a Healthy Baby

What is folic acid?

Folic acid, or folate, is a B
vitamin. The word folate comes from folium, the Latin word for leaf. Folate happens
naturally in food, particularly in dark, green leafy vegetables. Folic acid is the
synthetic form supplied in multivitamins and foods fortified with folic acid.
Researchers discovered folate’s importance in preventing anemia about 70 years ago.
But
only in recent years have they learned of the link between folate deficiency and certain
birth defects.

Why is folic acid important?

Most people have heard about the
importance of folic acid for women during their childbearing years. But what’s all
the
fuss about? Getting enough folic acid can reduce the risk for neural tube defects
(NTDs). Folic acid only helps, however, if it’s taken before getting pregnant and
during
the first trimester of pregnancy.

What is the role of folic acid in
preventing birth defects?

A critical period of fetal
development happens during the early weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman is aware
she is even pregnant.


Illustration of a human embryo at 4 weeks.

One of the earliest structures to
form is the neural tube. This structure is flat at first. But it rolls into a tube
by
only 1 month after conception to become the brain and spinal cord.

Without enough folic acid, the
cells in this structure can’t function or grow correctly and the tube doesn’t close.
The
spine, skull, and brain can be affected, with open or closed abnormalities.


Illustration of three different degrees of spina bifida

Two of the most common types of
NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is a condition in which a part
of
the spinal cord and the surrounding structures develops outside the body, instead
of
inside it. Anencephaly is a condition in which the brain and skull bones don’t form
correctly. This results in most of the brain being absent.

Researchers have found that the
risk for NTDs is significantly lowered when a woman gets extra folic acid in addition
to
a healthy diet from 1 month before conception through 2 to 3 months after becoming
pregnant.

What are the sources for folic
acid?

Folate happens naturally in many
foods. These include dark, leafy green vegetables, legumes (dried beans and peas),
and
fruits (oranges, bananas, melons, and most berries). But often it’s not enough. To
help
women get the amount they need, the FDA requires folic acid to be added to enriched
breads, breakfast cereals, pastas, rice, and other grains.

The developing baby needs folate to
make healthy new cells, and to make DNA and RNA (genetic material). These are
cell-building blocks. Folate also is vital to form normal red blood cells and certain
amino acids. These are important functions during pregnancy and infancy. This is a
time
when cells rapidly divide and grow.

How much folic acid is advised for women
of childbearing age?

Women who may become pregnant
should take a supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid. To help reduce your risk, take
the
folic acid supplement in addition to eating foods naturally rich in folate and those
fortified with folic acid. Some women will need additional folic acid. So it’s important
to talk with your healthcare provider about the amount that is right for you.