Folic acid is one of the reasons why healthcare providers recommend taking a prenatal vitamin when you’re trying to conceive. Taking 400 micrograms of folic acid (or folate – part of the B-vitamin family) before getting pregnant can prevent some of the most common neural tube defects.
Folate is vitamin B9. It is found in many of the dark, leafy vegetables and other natural foods (more on that below). It is essential for helping your future baby’s neural tube development, including the brain and spinal cord.
Folic acid deficiencies in mothers are linked to neural defects such as:
- Spina bifida:when the spinal cord and spinal column don’t completely close
- Anencephaly: a severe underdevelopment of the brain
- Encephalocele: when brain tissue protrudes out to the skin through an opening in the skull
These defects are most likely to occur during the first 28 days of your embryo’s development in the womb. As a result, we recommend that women focus on preparing their bodies for pregnancy, including sufficient folic acid intake – before they get pregnant. Doing so ensures your baby gets precisely what s/he needs from the moment of conception.
As mentioned above, current guidelines recommend women trying to conceive (TTC) get 400 micrograms of folate per day and then increase that intake to 600 micrograms once they are pregnant.
The right supplement combined with a healthy diet should provide the total levels of folic acid and other vitamins and minerals to support a healthy pregnancy. Even so, it’s good to know what to look for when reading the labels on supplements and fortified/enriched food products.
According to the March of Dimes:
Vitamin supplement labels now list “mcg DFE of folate,” which stands for dietary folate equivalent. It’s the amount of folate your body absorbs. If a serving has less than 400 mcg DFE of folate, you need more than one serving to get all the folic acid you need each day.
Labels on food products don’t always list the amount of folic acid in the product. However, newer food labels that list folic acid will list mcg DFE of folate, just like for vitamin supplements.
Folic acid isn’t just for babies. Our bodies need folic acid too. Specifically, folic acid helps to support:
- Maintenance and repair of DNA
- Production of red blood cells (lack of folic acid is often linked to anemia in women)
- New cell production (including skin, hair, and nails)
Speak to your physician about taking a prenatal vitamin, including the recommended daily dose of folic acid. While the following sources support your body’s needs, they are rarely sufficient to provide the recommended daily allowance.
- Dark, leafy greens (spinach, bok choy, romaine lettuce)
- Beans and legumes (lentils, pinto beans, black beans)
- Citrus fruits (oranges, lemon and grapefruits)
- Fortified or “enriched” bread, cereals, rice, cornmeal, flour, and different types of pasta
We recommend that women use both prenatal vitamins or physician-approved vitamin supplements along with an anti-inflammatory diet that naturally included folate-rich foods. However, prenatal supplements are not a stand-alone substitute for a healthy pre-pregnancy and pregnancy diet.
Neural tube defects (NTDs) affect about 3,000 babies in the United States each year. Certain factors increase your chances of giving birth to a baby with an NTD. Some of the most common risk factors include:
- Having a biological child with an NTD in the past
- You or your partner were born with an NTD
- Your partner has a biological child with an NTD
- You have particular MTHFR variants (see below)
Let your physician know if any of the above are true for you. We’ll take extra special precautions to ensure you have sufficient folic acid levels and ensure your current diet and supplement intake provides the right amount each day.
The good news is that ingesting adequate amounts of it daily decreases your chances of having a baby with an NTD by as much as 70%.
Specific genetic variants can slow down how your body absorbs folic acid, putting your baby in a higher NTD risk bracket. This variant can be passed down from parent to child. Let us know if you suspect you or a direct relative has an MTHFR variant.
Read Who Benefits from Genetic Testing to learn more about preconception genetic testing and support a healthier conception and pregnancy. The tests are typically free or very low cost through health insurance companies.
Would you like to work with a fertility center that supports you through a healthy conception and early pregnancy journey? Schedule a consultation with Fertility Solutions.