You may have heard that folic acid is important for women who are trying to conceive and expectant mothers, but why is that? Read on to find out more.
This is the one supplement you must’ve heard of whenever you speak to women who are trying to conceive, or perhaps read about on a mummy forum. But what exactly is folic acid, why is it so important for women trying to conceive and expecting mothers, and are there any side effects?
Read on to find out all the answers to your burning folic acid questions and more.
What is folic acid?
Simply put, folic acid is a synthetic version of vitamin B9 (aka folate). It is essential in helping your body produce and maintain new cells, and helps prevent changes to your DNA that may lead to cancer .
Folic acid also has other essential functions in the body like [2, 4, 5]:
- Keeping your red blood cells healthy.
- Forming DNA and RNA, and is involved in protein metabolism.
- Breaking down homocysteine, a harmful substance in high amounts that if left untreated increases your risks for dementia, heart disease and stroke.
You can find folic acid in fortified food like breads and cereals, or as dietary supplements.
Difference between folic acid and folate
Many use the terms ‘folic acid’ and ‘folate’ interchangeably, which can be confusing. This is because even though both are a form of vitamin B9, they are a little different.
Firstly, folate is natural and folic acid is synthetic. By that we mean that you can get folate by consuming whole foods like beans, peanuts, dark green leafy vegetables, etc. Folic acid, on the other hand, is mostly found in fortified foods (folic acid-enriched food) and dietary supplements .
Secondly, they also have distinct chemical structures, which causes them to react differently in the body. For example, natural folate quickly loses activity during food processing and preparation. Meanwhile, folic acid remains stable for months or years, which is why you can find it even in cereal and supplements .
Lastly, folate and folic acid have different levels of bioavailability — how well your body absorbs these micronutrients. For the record, folic acid is much more bioavailable than folate. When folic acid is taken with food, its bioavailability is around 85%. Meanwhile, folate derived from whole foods is “less bioavailable at approximately 50% of the value for folic acid alone.” .
Folic acid’s role in preventing birth defects
Folic acid is one of the most important nutrients for all moms-to-be and expecting mothers. Consuming enough folic acid before and during pregnancy has shown to help proper formation of the neural tube . Incomplete formation of neural tubes can cause birth defects that affect the proper formation of the brain, spine, or spinal cord .
Common birth defects include spina bifida (incomplete formation of the spinal column) and anencephaly (incomplete formation of the brain and skull) [7, 8]. These conditions are severe, and even with medical advances, a cure still hasn’t been found for them.
When should you start taking folic acid?
As with many things in life, time is of the essence.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends daily folic acid supplementation for all pregnant women . It is recommended that women who are planning to get pregnant start taking 400-800 micrograms (µg) of folic acid at least a month before they start trying and should continue through the first trimester .
Consuming the recommended amount of folic acid just from your diet alone can be challenging. To ensure you get at least 400 µg of folic acid daily, take a vitamin with folic acid in it and/or eat fortified foods, on top of a balanced diet with folate-rich foods .
With that said, your OB-GYN may recommend a higher amount if they find that you are at increased risk of having a baby with neural tube defects .
In general, folic acid supplements are safe and well-tolerated by most people. However, some may experience some mild side effects, the most common are :
- Loss of appetite
These side effects are usually mild and easily manageable. For example, you may avoid feeling sick by taking folic acid with or right after meals. To improve appetite loss or bloating, you may want to have smaller meals during the day .
Having said that, if you have an underlying medical condition, do consult a doctor or pharmacist before implementing folic acid into your diet.
Folic acid or vitamin B9 can have harmful consequences, even if you’re not pregnant [12, 13].
As we have mentioned above, folic acid is crucial to forming healthy red blood cells that are responsible for carrying oxygen around the body . Low folic acid levels have been associated with megaloblastic anaemia. This is a condition where red blood cells are larger than usual, and have a shorter lifespan than normal red blood cells .
Is folic acid good for men too?
There is no doubt that folic acid is vital for women of reproductive age. But is there any beneficial use of folic acid for males? The answer is no. According to recent scientific studies, folic acid supplements don't improve semen quality . Most men can get enough daily folate needs through their diet alone .
Having said that, supplementation will only be needed if the male has a vitamin B9 deficiency.
Eating right is one of the easiest ways to not only get more folate in your body but also increase your chances of pregnancy. To help you with that, we’ve compiled a list of folate-rich foods that you can easily find at your local supermarket :
- Beef liver
- Black-eyed peas
- Brussels sprouts
- Wheat germ
Folic acid is vital for conception
Folic acid is a vital nutrient for women who are pregnant or going to start a family. It can easily be found in fortified foods or in the form of easy-to-consume dietary supplements. Alternatively, you can also increase your folate intake by consuming certain nutrient-rich foods.
Consuming enough folic acid through dietary and supplemental sources helps prevent neural tube defects in babies and keeps your blood cells healthy amongst other benefits.
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