Folic acid (vitamin B9) is an important supplement during early pregnancy, but it is also extremely important when you are trying to conceive or thinking about trying in the near future.
Folic acid is added to some foods and found naturally in others, but it is recommended that you take an additional amount in the form of a supplement (400mcg is recommended until after the first trimester). Supplements of folic acid are widely available; you can buy it on its own or as part of a pregnancy multi-vitamin.
Natural Sources of Folic Acid
Folic acid is found in many foods, but we often lose the benefits by overcooking vegetables in water. Folic acid dissolves in water so we can lose it down the sink when we drain the veg. However, using vegetables in soup preserves the folic acid, and so does cooking by steaming, roasting or eating vegetables raw (carefully washed of course!). Dark green leafy vegetables and pulses are high in folic acid. Whole grains (rather than white pasta, bread and rice) are higher in folic acid, and you can find good levels in oranges, boiled eggs and tinned salmon.
Why Take folic Acid?
Folic acid is essential for cell growth and development. It is so important during pregnancy because it helps prevent neural tube defects. During early pregnancy (indeed, before you even realise you are pregnant) the brain and spinal cord are developing rapidly, and to do this your body needs a good store of folic acid. The most common neural tube defect is spina bifida. Spina bifida occurs when the neural tube does not close properly. This can affect a person with various degrees of severity, but it can be extremely debilitating, even causing paralysis. There is some evidence that folic acid also helps prevent other birth defects too. If your baby is considered to be at higher risk of a neural tube defect, you will be prescribed a considerably higher dose of folic acid (usually 5mg). This is why it is essential you discuss any family history of such defects with your doctor early on in pregnancy if not before you become pregnant. Your doctor may also prescribe a higher dose of folic acid if you have diabetes or have a high BMI. Talk to your doctor if you have coeliac disease or take anti-epilepsy medication as well, as your dose may need to be altered.
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It?s Never Too Late to Start
If your pregnancy is unexpected or you were unaware of the need to take folic acid before you conceived, then it isn?t too late to start. As soon as you realise you are pregnant, it is very important you begin taking a daily dose of the folic acid supplement. Speak to your doctor about your dosage if you feel there is any need for a higher dose (e.g. a higher risk of neural tube defects). Boost your intake of folic acid with a healthy diet and don?t worry if you forget a dose, just continue as normal. If you have any concerns, or feel that the supplement you are taking doesn?t agree with you, speak to your doctor or midwife.