Posted on January 7th, 2019by Dr. Tanmoy Mukherjeein Nutrition

The Facts About Folate

What foods should I introduce to my diet? Can I continue to exercise? How much weight is safe to gain? These are just a few of the dozens of questions that can flood someone’s mind upon first learning that they are pregnant. For those pregnant for the first time, there is a lot of new information to learn in a short amount of time.

Folate, or folic acid, is a supplement prescribed even prior to a woman attempting to become pregnant. But why is folic acid so important for pregnancy? And can it do anything for fertility? Here are 6 important facts you need to know about folic acid.

1. What is folic acid? What is the difference between folic acid and folate?
Folic acid is a vitamin that is necessary for normal growth and development in all of your body’s cells. Because more folate is required to support the growth and development of a baby, physicians prescribe the supplement once they confirm your pregnancy. Folic acid is the man-made form of folate. Folic acid is found in vitamins and fortified foods whereas folate is found naturally in certain foods.

2. What are the benefits of folic acid?
Folic acid protects unborn babies against serious birth defects called neural tube defects. These birth defects typically occur within the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before an individual knows they are pregnant. Additionally, not having enough folic acid can lead to a type of anemia called folate-deficiency anemia. Folate-deficiency anemia is more common in women of childbearing age than in men.

3. What are neural tube defects (NTDs)?
The neural tube is the part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord. The most common NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. In spina bifida, the bones of the spine do not close completely and part of the spinal cord pokes through. While some forms of spina bifida are mild and can be corrected, other forms of spina bifida are more extreme and may result in paralysis or loss of bladder control. This NTD affects approximately 1,500 babies a year in the United States. Anencephaly is caused when the upper part of the neural tube that forms the brain does not close completely. Often babies born with this condition do not survive long after birth because they are missing major parts of the brain, skull, or scalp. About 1,000 babies in the United States are affected by this NTD each year.

4. Where can I get folic acid?
In addition to branded vitamins, you can get folic acid from several types of food. Folate is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, such as broccoli, asparagus, oranges, and grapefruits. Other foods are fortified with folic acid, meaning the vitamin has been added to the food. Examples of these foods include bread, breakfast cereals, pasta, and flour. Just be sure to look for the word ‘fortified’ or ‘enriched’ on the food label to confirm the food actually contains folate.

5. When should I take folic acid?
Since folic acid is important for normal development, it is recommended that all women of reproductive age take 400mcg of folic acid every day. For individuals trying to conceive, it is imperative to take 400mcg of folic acid each day at least 1 month before pregnancy through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. During pregnancy, that dose should increase to 600mcg of folic acid each day in order to help the baby grow and develop. Of course, you should always confirm the dose with your doctor to learn exactly how much folic acid you should take during your pregnancy. Women, for example, who have previously had a child with an NTD may need to take more than the recommended dose. Additionally, women on certain types of medications need to make sure folic acid does not interact with those medications.

6. Will folic acid help with infertility?
While folic acid won’t explicitly boost your fertility, those who do not take in enough folic acid have a higher risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect. Interestingly, there are some reports that men who take folate can boost their sperm health due to its antioxidant properties.

Folate is one of the most important supplements you will be instructed to take upon learning that you are pregnant. As always, be sure to check with your doctor to confirm the right dose for you.

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