Taken prior to conception and during the first months of pregnancy, folic acid plays a central role in the prevention of neural tube defect, among other things.
What is folic acid?
Folic acid (also known as vitamin B9 or folate) is a nutrient that helps cell growth and maintenance. Among other things, this vitamin promotes maternal and foetal tissue growth during pregnancy. It contributes to the normal development of the spinal cord, brain and skull of an unborn child.
An adequate intake of folic acid is essential in all women during pregnancy to prevent certain congenital anomalies such as the following:
- neural tube defects (spina bifida)
- congenital heart disease (heart problems)
- urinary tract defects
- limb defects, and
- orofacial clefts (i.e., cleft lip and/or cleft palate)
During what period should folic acid supplements be taken?
According to the latest recommendations, folic acid should be started at least three months prior to conception. It should be taken throughout the pregnancy and until about four to six weeks postpartum or for the duration of breastfeeding. Future mothers are also strongly encouraged to maintain a folic acid-rich diet.
All women of child-bearing age should make sure to take a sufficient daily intake of folic acid (0.4 mg per day) for two reasons. First, this vitamin, like any other, plays various biological roles that are fundamental in maintaining health. Second, it’s good to have adequate reserves of folic acid in the event of an unexpected pregnancy.
What foods are rich in folic acid?
Here are a few examples of foods that are not only an excellent source of folic acid, but also of essential and beneficial nutrients to health.
- fortified grain products (white flour, pasta and cereals)
- chick peas
- kidney beans
- Brussels sprouts
- green peas
- corn, and
*** The typical North American diet is unlikely to provide an adequate intake of folic acid before conception or during pregnancy. This is why Canadian experts recommend taking a multivitamin that includes folic acid to guarantee an adequate intake for the baby and the mother-to-be.
Choosing a multivitamin
Speak to a healthcare professional such as a doctor or pharmacist to determine the right dose of folic acid to take. Recommended daily doses of folic acid vary between 0.4 mg and 5 mg, depending on your child’s risk of neural tube defect (NTD). The neural tube is the embryo’s central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord.
The following conditions have been linked to a higher risk of NTD:
- the presence of an NTD in a previous pregnancy
- a family history of NTD (on the mother’s or the father’s side)
- certain kidney, liver or intestine diseases
- alcoholism and drug addiction
- taking certain drugs
In the context of a consultation, your pharmacist can evaluate with you your folic acid needs. He/she can help you choose a vitamin and mineral supplement suited to your needs, and that contains the right amount of folic acid. Moreover, pharmacists can prescribe one.
Is it possible to take too much folic acid?
If you are taking a daily multivitamin that contains folic acid and you have a balanced diet that follows the recommendations of the Canada Food Guide, you will not ingest an excessive amount of folic acid. The excess amount will be eliminated in the urinary tract, so you don’t have to worry about that issue!
Still today, in Canada, about one out of twenty-five babies is born with a congenital defect. Folic acid supplementation in pregnant women is an effective measure and is generally recognized by the medical community to prevent some of them. All women should be made aware of the importance of folic acid during pregnancy. We hope that this article will have convinced you of that!
Don’t hesitate to speak to your pharmacist if you have any questions related to folic acid, vitamin and mineral supplements and prenatal health.