Why Folic Acid is Essential During Pregnancy?Naturely
Are you sexually active? Is the thought of having a baby on the horizon? If your answer is a ‘Yes’ to either of the questions, then say hello to folic acid because it’s definitely the best friend of any woman of childbearing age. In the United States, Folic Acid Awareness Week happening during the second week of January annually always highlights the importance of folic acid to all of us, especially women who are either pregnant or may become pregnant. So today, let me share with you several reasons why you need to know and what you need to know about folic acid. Let’s start!
What’s folic acid?
When I first started reading about folic acid and the related vitamin B9, I also came across the word “folate”. If you ever wonder what the difference between folic acid and folate is, read on for my quick and easy explanation below because I have done the hard work for you.
According to research, vitamin B9 is an essential nutrient that is required for DNA replication and as a substrate for a range of enzymatic reactions involved in amino acid synthesis and vitamin metabolism1. In layman’s terms, our body needs vitamin B9 to synthesise DNA and produce new cells. The naturally-occurring form of vitamin B9 is known as folate2, which is present in abundance in livers, legumes and dark green leafy vegetables. On the other hand, the man-made form of vitamin B9 is folic acid, which is frequently added to multivitamin-mineral supplements and refined grain products such as bread and cereals.
Why is folic acid essential during pregnancy?
Now, why does everyone say folic acid is a pregnancy superhero? It’s simply because folic acid helps to reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs), which occur in 0.5 to 2 per 1000 pregnancies with various handicaps for the affected child3. Never heard of neural tube? Don’t fret! Neural tube is the part of the embryo from which your baby’s spine and brain develop. It is now well established that folic acid deficiency (absolute or relative) is a predisposing factor to this type of malformation.
Several randomized controlled trials showed that high-dose folic acid (4mg) is an essential factor for prevention of neural tube defects recurrence and significantly prevents the first occurrence of neural tube defects with a lower dose (0.4mg) 4. So if you’re pregnant or might become pregnant, let’s protect your future baby’s brain and spine by taking at least 400 microgram of folic acid daily.
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But I am not planning a baby!
Soon after a friend of mine got married, I asked her to start taking folic acid. At first she was stunned for a moment, she asked me, “Err, is it that stuff you took when you were pregnant?” Back then, having a baby was nowhere on her horizon, so she was puzzled why she needs to take folic acid. Guess what, I was right because of a simple fact: unplanned pregnancy.
About half of all pregnancies are unplanned, that’s one in two! A baby’s spine develops fully in the first 28 days of pregnancy. So, by the time you find out you’re pregnant it may be too late to help support the baby’s spine and brain development. As we all want the best for our babies, better be safe than sorry.
How do I get folic acid?
Both folate and folic acid are water-soluble. This means vitamin B9 is not stored in large amount but will leave our bodies through the urine. Therefore, folic acid or folate needs to be consumed on a daily basis at least 3 months before getting pregnant to work its magic. If you are already pregnant, start taking folic acid tablets or include more folate-rich food straight away and continue each day up to 3 months into your pregnancy.
Eat more folate-rich foods
Here are my top 3 folate-rich healthy ingredients that I have been trying to include in my diet.
- Legumes: My favourite folate-rich legume has to be lentils because they do not need to be presoaked and can be cooked in less than 20 minutes. One cup of cooked lentils (198g) generally provides about 90% of the reference daily intake (RDI) of folate5.
- Asparagus: These come in in all sizes and colours from slim, pencil-width green stalks to big fat white ones as thick as your thumb. Simply toss asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper, then place over a grill until well-charred and tender. Sprinkle with some lemon juice and enjoy immediately for a good dose of folate together with heart-healthy fibre.
- Beets: Beets are quite earthy, which most people either love or hate. Yet it’s packed with nutrients, including folate. A single cup of raw beets contains a whopping 138mcg of folate, or about 37% of the RDI6. I don’t particularly love them by themselves, but adding them to smoothie or hummus is a good idea to tone down their earthy taste.
Take folic acid tablets
Apart from eating more folate-rich food, there is a quicker option to ensure sufficient folic acid intake. Simply start taking your folic acid tablets. One tablet per day and you’re sorted. Sound too good to be true, right?
Let me admit something. Although we are taking about one tiny tablet per day, creating a new habit of taking folic acid is by no mean a piece of cake for someone who is as forgetful as I am. So here is what I did.
- Put the folic acid bottle next to my jug of water: That way, I could conveniently take one tiny tablet when drinking some water to start my morning.
- Pop a few folic acid tablets into a tiny box and put it into my handbag: In doing so, even if I forgot to take one in the morning, I could consume it in no time while being away from home.
It took me roughly a month before the habit became automatic, of course with a few misses here and there. But hey, if you forget, don’t give up, just start again. You’ve got this!