Folic Acid Is Crucial in Pregnancy
Folic acid is important for the health of developing babies during pregnancy. The most crucial time for this is during the first few weeks of pregnancy. There are plenty of foods rich in folic acid, as well as many multivitamin options for getting enough folic acid for the health of mom and baby.
Benefits of Folic Acid During Pregnancy
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), any woman who is in her reproductive years should be supplementing with folic acid daily. There is research going back decades showing the importance of folate (a B vitamin), the natural version of folic acid, to the development of babies in utero. One such study showed that if a woman has low levels of folate in her system, it increases the risks of various issues, including premature birth, the baby’s weight is lower than normal, and other growth issues.
The CDC further explained that supplementing with folic acid and eating a diet consisting of folate-rich foods helps minimize the risk of other serious congenital disabilities relating to the brain and spine of the baby. These include anencephaly, in which parts of the skull and brain are missing, and spina bifida, which is when the neural tube does not close completely, causing damage to nerves and the spinal cord.
WebMD lists additional benefits for mothers and their babies from the use of folic acid. Babies have a reduced risk of cleft lip/palate and miscarriage. Additionally, mothers have a reduced risk of complications during their pregnancy, as well as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and some types of cancer.
Folic Acid Dosage Recommendations for Pregnancy
WebMD gives specific dosage recommendations based on the stages of pregnancy:
- Before Conceiving: 400 mcg
- First Trimester: 400 mcg
- Second and Third Trimesters: 600 mcg
- Postpartum (if breastfeeding): 500 mcg
Most of the recommended multivitamins containing folic acid have the 600 mcg dose to cover all stages of pregnancy and the postpartum recovery period. Women should consult their doctor for specific recommendations, especially if they have had issues in previous pregnancies related to insufficient amounts of folic acid.
Risks/Dangers of Folic Acid Supplementation
While having enough folic acid is important for mother and child, too much may not be good. According to WebMD, there had been a study which showed that excessive amounts of folate and B12 (especially when there are elevated levels of both) correlate with an increased risk of autism. Women of reproductive age should follow the normal guidelines. The article also stresses that this data has not been peer-reviewed and that normal levels of supplementation decrease the risk of autism.
As for the health of the mother, WebMD also indicates that normal levels of folic acid supplementation (below 1 mg daily) do not usually result in any noticeable side effects for adults. The article goes on to state some of the risks associated with higher dosages.
These include things such as an upset stomach, sleep issues, behavioral issues, and more. There are more serious possible side effects, as well, including heart attacks and certain types of cancer.
So, for the health of mother and baby, unless otherwise directed by a doctor, pregnant women (and those of reproductive age) should only be supplementing at the recommended dosages of 400 mcg to 600 mcg daily.
When to Start Taking Folic Acid
As the CDC indicated, all women who may become pregnant should take folic acid daily. WebMD further explained that the most prevalent concerns, namely congenital disabilities, take place in the first few weeks of pregnancy. This is before most women even know they are pregnant.
Another study showed that neural tube defects occur at a much lower rate if women were taking multivitamins containing folic acid during the first six weeks of pregnancy than those who never took them or only took them before conceiving. The same study showed that if the women began using multivitamins after the six-week mark, the rate of neural tube defects was the same as in those who had never taken multivitamins containing folic acid.
As such, women should be sure to have sufficient levels of folate during the reproductive years.
Foods Rich in Folate
There are many foods rich in folate, from leafy greens and avocados to fortified and enriched foods. Women who are eating a well-balanced diet are most likely already eating many of these. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) lists the following foods in order of micrograms per serving of folate/folic acid:
- Beef Liver
- Black-Eyed Peas (Cowpeas)
- Breakfast Cereals, Fortified
- Brussels Sprouts
- Lettuce, Romaine
- Mustard Greens
- Green Peas
- Kidney Beans
- Spaghetti, Enriched
- Wheat Germ
- Tomato Juice
- Crab, Dungeness
- Orange Juice
- Turnip Greens
- Yeast, Baker’s
Folic Acid Supplements
Pregnant women should be taking a complete prenatal vitamin, as should nursing mothers and women who are trying to conceive. Babylist.com has put together an excellent article on the best overall prenatal vitamins for pregnant women. Here are the various options it included:
- Best Budget Prenatal Vitamin: Nature Made Prenatal Multi + DHA
- Best Prenatal Gummy Vitamins: SmartyPants Prenatal Complete
- Best Prenatal Vitamins with DHA: Nordic Naturals Prenatal DHA
- Best Natural Prenatal Vitamins: MegaFood Baby & Me
- Best Prenatal Vitamins with Iron: Honest Prenatal Vitamins
- Best Prenatal Vitamins with Folate/Folic Acid: Ritual Prenatal Vitamins
- Best Liquid Prenatal Vitamins: Pink Stork Liquid Prenatal Vitamins
- Best Prenatal Vitamins Without Iron: GNC Prenatal Formula Without Iron
- Best Gentle Prenatal Vitamins: New Chapter Prenatal Vitamins
If a mother is not taking a prenatal vitamin, a few folic acid supplement options include (these are the best sellers on Amazon):
- Methyl Folate from Jarrow Formulas
- 5-MTHF 1 mg Folate from Thorne Research
- Methyl Folate+ from One Elevated
Women who may become pregnant should be eating foods with folic acid regularly and supplementing with folic acid, as well. There are many health benefits to both mother and child. In addition, the risks associated with taking folic acid only seem to be an issue with unnecessarily high doses.