Importance of folate during pregnancy

Why is folate super important during pregnancy?

The importance of eating natural and healthy foods during pregnancy cannot be emphasized enough. Apart from fibre, carbohydrates, and proteins, you also need many other macro and micronutrients during this phase. And folate or folic acid is one of the most important nutrients required by pregnant women. Thus, from the moment you plan to have a child, you should start eating folate-rich foods for pregnancy and take supplements of the same vitamin. However, consulting your doctor is essential before you consume supplements.

What is folate?

Folate is a part of the B-group of vitamins. This vitamin plays an important role in the development of the foetus in the early stages of pregnancy. It helps in the growth and development of a baby’s cells and tissues, especially the neural tube.

Why is folic acid necessary?

Folate plays an important role in reducing the unborn baby’s risk of developing neural tube defects. A baby’s neural tube is formed in the first 4 to 6 weeks of pregnancy. This will later become the baby’s spinal cord, brain and the skeleton system that encloses this neural system.

Folic acid deficiency during pregnancy can cause neural tube defects such as:

  • Spina bifida: A condition where the spinal column and spinal cord are not completely developed and closed.
  • Anencephaly: A condition marked by a severely underdeveloped brain.
  • Encephalocele: A condition where brain tissues protrude out of the skull and skin.

The exact way in which folic acid helps prevent these defects is not known.

Babies born with these defects do not usually survive for very long. Those who do survive, live with the risk of permanent disability.

Getting sufficient folate during pregnancy can also protect the baby against other conditions such as:

  • Poor development of the foetus in the womb
  • Premature delivery
  • Low birth weight
  • Miscarriage
  • Cleft palate
  • Cleft lip

For the mother herself, folate can lower the risk of pregnancy-related complications such as:

  • Strokes
  • Heart disease
  • Preeclampsia
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Certain types of cancer

How much folate is available in food sources?

Women should consume around 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate per day. When they are expecting, this should increase to 600 micrograms (mcg) per day. However, this cannot be met through only dietary sources. Folate can be found in green vegetables and certain fruits. These include spinach, lettuce, peas, beans, broccoli, lemons, melon, and bananas. Half a cup of boiled lentils offers 179 mcg of folate.

Many packaged foods such as breads, cereals, and juices are also fortified with folate. These are often considered better choices for folic acid foods. For example, ¾ cup of fortified breakfast cereal can provide 400mcg of folate.

The exact quantity of folate in food sources is difficult to ascertain as it depends on the way the fruits and vegetables are consumed. As with other vitamins, cooking these foods can reduce the quantity of folate available in them.

Taking folate supplements

In many cases, women realize that they are expecting after the neural tube has already developed. Thus, many doctors advise women who want to have a family to start taking folate supplements before conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. The exact folic acid dosage depends on the woman’s diet, overall health, and stage of pregnancy.

Women can start taking folate supplements even a year before planning a pregnancy. According to one study, doing so reduces their chances of premature deliveries by 50%. Women who have already given birth to one child with neural defects can reduce the risks of having another child with similar defects by 70% if they get sufficient folic acid. In such cases, the recommended dosage may be higher than normal.

These supplements should be taken every day according to the folic acid dosage recommended by the doctor. It is important to remember that not all prenatal vitamin supplements are the same. Hence, if you prefer a particular type or brand of prenatal vitamins, consult your doctor about the same to understand the correct folate dose. When consumed orally, folic acid side effects are minimal. However, taking it in very high doses for extended periods of time can cause complications such as behavioural changes, nausea, cramps, diarrhoea, irritability, sleep disorders and rashes.

In conclusion

Folate is an important prenatal vitamin that all expectant mothers must take before and during their pregnancy. Despite consuming meals rich in this vitamin, supplements are essential and must be taken as recommended by the doctor.