What is folic acid and why is it important?
Folic acid is a vitamin which plays an important role in the development of growth and cells. Women are recommended to start taking a folic acid supplement as soon as they start trying for a baby and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Folic acid is the name given to vitamin B9 when it is in supplement form. When it occurs naturally in food it is referred to as folate. Everyone needs folic acid in their diet but it is particularly important during pregnancy as it helps your embryo’s neural tube develop properly, reducing the risk of a condition like spina bifida.
What does folic acid actually do?
Folic acid works with vitamin B12 to form red blood cells to carry oxygen where it needs to go around the body. It is involved in the formation of nucleic acids, maintaining a healthy nervous system and breaking down, using and creating proteins.
Anyone over the age of 11 should aim to consume at least 0.2mg of folic acid on a daily basis, either from food or through taking a supplement. However, during early pregnancy higher levels of folic acid are needed so women should take 0.4mg of folic acid during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
As folic acid plays a vital role in cell formation, it is known to help prevent neural tube defects (NTDs). Your baby’s neural tube goes on to form their brain and spine so it is important that it develops properly and closes completely.
If this doesn’t happen and the neural tube doesn’t close, your baby will be considered to have an NTD – the most well known of these are spina bifida and anencephaly. These defects usually occur within the first month of pregnancy and possibly before you even get a positive test result.
This is why it is important that women take a folic acid supplement if they are trying to conceive or think there is a possibility they may become pregnant. If you find out you are expecting and you haven’t been taking folic acid, start taking it straight away.
Which foods contain folic acid?
Folate, the natural form of folic acid occurs in quite a lot of foods and some products like breakfast cereals are fortified with it. Good sources include broccoli, spinach, asparagus, peas, chickpeas and brown rice. It is also found in bananas, citrus fruits and eggs.
Outside of the first trimester of pregnancy, you are likely to eat enough folic acid naturally if you have a balanced and healthy diet. However, there is no harm in taking a folic acid supplement beyond 12 weeks of pregnancy and it is part of many multivitamins designed to be taken throughout pregnancy.
Folic acid supplements are easy to buy from pharmacists and supermarkets or you can get them on prescription from your GP. If you have a family history of neural tube defects or a previous pregnancy was affected by them, your doctor is likely to prescribe a high-dose supplement of folic acid.
You may also be advised to take 5mg of folic acid in pregnancy if you have diabetes or epilepsy.