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Everything You Need to Know About Folic Acid for Pregnancy

by Louise W. Rice

You may have already come across the “folic acid” term, but we bet you’re not really sure what it means. Folic acid is the natural form of vitamin b9 that helps make DNA, the genetic material in all the cells in your body. This prenatal vitamin is essential for healthy, well-nourished, growing babies.

The Importance of Folic Acid Intake

Just like any form of folate, folic acid prevents serious birth defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, which affect the baby’s brain and spinal cord. They can be life-threatening, and babies with these defects can be severely affected by infections or injuries in the first few weeks or months of life. Anencephaly is a severe, often fatal, condition with a survival rate of only 10-20% and a life expectancy of 2 months to a year. Spina bifida usually causes leg paralysis but sometimes can cause difficulties with walking or bowel and bladder function. A baby with spina bifida has up to a 50% chance of surviving to the age of five, whereas a baby with anencephaly has a survival rate of only 25% to 40%.

Unfortunately, these severe birth defects do occur in babies born to females who have not had folic acid during early pregnancy. However, by eating lots of foods rich in folic acid, you can help prevent birth defects and reduce the risk of your baby having a difficult start in life. It is key medical advice that you could get if you talked to your doctor. There are actually many tips for motherhood that will help you ensure a smooth and healthy pregnancy.

You can also help prevent birth defects by taking folate and folic acid at any time during your pregnancy. But, you must do so for at least a year before your baby is conceived to make sure that you have built up your reserves of the substance. It has been estimated that 50 to 70% of all congenital birth defects may be prevented by taking folic acid every day prior to becoming pregnant. The following folic acid benefits in pregnancy will help you to maximize your body’s abilities to metabolize and utilize folic acid and prevent birth defects.

Folic Acid in Pregnancy and Childbirth

A 2002 study found that women of childbearing age who had had a first-trimester folic acid supplement in early pregnancy were 20% less likely to have an infant with neural tube defects (NTDs) than pregnant women who did not intake folic acid. A 2004 study found that when folic acid is taken daily during the first weeks of pregnancy, there was a 45% decrease in neural tube defects (NTDs).

Folic acid is particularly important in the first trimester when rapid cell division occurs, and there is no mechanism for the re-methylation of homocysteine. This is followed by an increase in the amount of folate-sensitive 5-methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, a factor that controls the availability of folate to the mitochondria and that is also important in the periconceptional period.

Folic Acid and Birth Defects

Vitamin with folic acid has been used to prevent defects of the nervous system, particularly NTDs, spina bifida, and anencephaly, in humans since the 1930s. A study by the Institute of Medicine, which reviewed studies that involved 1.2 million infants born in the U.S., determined that daily folic acid supplementation during the periconceptional period and in the first trimester significantly reduced the occurrence of NTDs by 25 to 50%.

Folic acid has been in use in the U.S. since 1981, and the number of babies born with NTDs decreased by approximately 33% in 1999 as compared to the 1979 to 1981 birth rate. That’s why future moms are highly recommended to eat breakfast cereals every day for the proper health care and in order to ensure that there is no deficit of the B9 vitamin in their body.

Folic acid supplements also help prevent cardiovascular and orofacial clefts – two of the most common birth defects in the U.S. There are now five well-designed studies that have demonstrated a significant relationship between maternal folic acid supplementation and the prevention of these two birth defects. And researchers have proposed a dose of folic acid of 400 mcg of folic acid per day during the periconceptional period. The CDC recommends 400 mcg of folic acid per day (the recommended amount of folic acid may vary).

Some studies have found a lower risk of these two defects in newborns if folic acid was taken at least two weeks before conception and during the first trimester. A 2008 study of 1,100 women concluded that folic acid was most effective if taken prior to conception and during the first months of pregnancy.

Folic Acid and Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia, which is characterized by pregnancy-induced hypertension, proteinuria, and edema, is a leading cause of maternal and fetal mortality. The condition can begin in the second trimester, and some researchers have determined that women who had preeclampsia in a prior pregnancy and who took a folic acid supplement from three months prior to conception to the end of the first trimester had a 45% lower incidence of preeclampsia during the subsequent pregnancy.

A study of women in the United States who took folic acid from three months prior to conception to the end of the first trimester of pregnancy and who had no history of preeclampsia had a 38% lower risk of developing preeclampsia than women who did not take a folic acid supplement.

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