Why is Folic Acid so important in pregnancy?
The only source of nutrition for a developing baby is a mother's diet and nutrient stores, making it vital that women are mindful of their diet during pregnancy. In particular, Folic Acid, Vitamin D3, Choline, Iron and Omega-3 DHA are all very important nutrients to gain through your diet and supplements during pre-conception and pregnancy. Our expert nutritionists explain why.
What is Folic Acid and how is it gained?
Folic acid is a vitamin in the B-Vitamin family. It is also known as 'Vitamin B9' and it is a water-soluble vitamin which means that it gets washed out of the body daily, and therefore a regular supply is needed.
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Folic acid works alongside the other B vitamins and in balance with them. It's important to note that folic acid is the supplemental form of the nutrient, and the form found in food is called 'Folate'.
Both folic acid and folate are converted in the body into its active from which is called 'methyl folate' through a process called 'methylation'. Folate is found in wholegrains, spinach, broccoli, beans, lentils, seeds and fresh fruit. Processed food is typically low in folate unless it has been artificially added in a process called 'fortification'.
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Some medications can lower your levels of folate in the body. Your doctor should make sure you are using a reliable form of contraception before prescribing these medicines or give you a higher dose supplement to take alongside any medication if you think you might be pregnant.
There is some evidence to suggest that the use of sunbeds can breakdown folate in the body, increasing your need for a higher intake.
What does Folic Acid do?
Folic acid has four main purposes in our body.
- New DNA: Folic acid is vital for the synthesis of DNA and the replication of new cells. Each time a cell in our body divides, folic acid is required.
- Creation of blood: Folic acid is needed for the creation of new red blood cells and the transportation of oxygen around the body. Folate deficiency can lead to some types of anaemia.
- Hormones and neurotransmitters: Folic acid is also needed for the synthesis of some hormones including 'adrenaline', and our happy hormone 'serotonin'.
- Energy: Folic acid is required for the generation of energy in our body, and especially for the conversion of carbohydrates into glucose which cells then use for energy.
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Why is Folic Acid important during pregnancy?
There are four main ways your body uses Folic Acid during pregnancy.
1. For the growth of new cells
As folic acid is needed for the synthesis of DNA, it is especially important for pregnant woman because the maternal tissue rapidly divides to grow the foetus, and so the demand for folate is much higher during pregnancy.
2. For embryonic nervous tissue
Demand for folic acid by your body is higher for the development and growth of embryonic nervous tissue, such as the spinal cord, nerves and brain. Not getting enough folic acid during the early stages of pregnancy puts you at risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida, or other birth defects that affect the brain.
This additional demand for folate is very often required before women realise they're pregnant, yet the first stage of development of the foetus is the neural tube, which is nervous tissue and has a high demand for folate. As a result, it's important to try and supplement with folic acid while you're trying to get conceive as well as as during pregnancy.
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3. For an increase in blood volume
As the pregnancy progresses, the amount of blood circulating in the mother increases. Because folic acid is needed for the creation of new red blood cells, so demand for folic acid is increased during this process.
4. For energy
Pregnancy is an exhausting time, and it is important to have the right levels of all the nutrients your body needs for energy production. Taking additional B vitamins, and especially folic acid, in a pregnancy multivitamin can help to relieve tiredness and fatigue.
How much folic acid do I need?
The Department of Health recommend women of reproductive age supplement with 400mcg per day of folic acid. You do actually need more folate than this per day, however it is expected you will get the rest from your diet. Plant-based diets are typically higher in folate than omnivore diets if they are balanced and well planned. This does not mean that you should skip supplementing with Folic Acid, however, and if you consume more folate than you need, your body will excrete the excess through your urine.
Important nutrients during pregnancy
As well as folate, you need a good intake of all other nutrients. Those on plant-based diets should be especially conscious to get enough of the following:
If you are on a plant-based diet, it is important you take a Vitamin B12 supplement. It is very hard to get enough vitamin B12 without a supplement on a plant-based diet, and Vitamin B12 is essential for the neural development of the foetus. Learn more in 5 signs you may be low in Vitamin B12.
Many women have low vitamin D status due to a lack of sun exposure. Low vitamin D can affect calcium absorption and increases risk of developing pre-eclampsia.
Iodine is needed for a healthy pregnancy as it helps your baby to grow. Low iodine intake may affect your thyroid function and the thyroid function of your baby which can result in learning difficulties. You may enjoy 'The best foods for thyroid health'.
Omega 3 fatty acids are classified as essential because our body cannot produce them, so we need to gain them through our diet or an omega 3 supplement. And omega 3 fatty acids are particularly important during pregnancy because they are the building block of the foetal brain and retina.
Learn more about nutrition through pregnancy in our articles The best pregnancy diet and The benefits of Choline and where to find it.
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