Folic acid promotes a healthy pregnancy before and after conception. Rapid growth and cellular division occur in the first few weeks of gestation. Your baby’s neural tube defect, congenital heart defect, and cleft lip risks are at their highest during this time. Supplementing might offer your baby protection, but folic acid benefits only begin there.
What is Folic Acid?
Also called vitamin B9, folate and folic acid benefits extend to DNA and new cell growth. One important difference between folate and folic acid is that folate occurs naturally. However, often doctors and medical professionals will use all three terms interchangeably.
The first weeks of pregnancy are when your baby’s heart and neurological system develop. Vitamin B9 protects your baby from many conditions that could affect them in vitro, shortly after birth, or later in life.
Sources of Folic Acid
• Fortified cereals, breads, and pasta
• Fortified flours and grains
• Fortified milks
• Prenatal vitamin
• Yeast extract spread
• Nutritional yeast
Natural Sources of Folate
• Legumes: chick peas, lentils, peas, soy-based products, and all beans
• Fruits: bananas, melons, strawberries, mangos, oranges, and lemons
• Dark, leafy greens and vegetables: spinach, asparagus, broccoli, and lettuces
• Seafood and shellfish: crab, mussels, salmon, and clams
• Meats: lamb, turkey, chicken, and ham
• Nuts: sunflower seeds, chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, and peanuts
Edamame provides you with 121% of your daily value in a single serving, but you can easily enjoy a well-rounded diet, including vegan or vegetarian, and meet your folate needs during pregnancy.
How Much Do You Need?
The standard dose is 400 mcg/day for pregnant women. Most prescription and over-the-counter prenatal vitamins use 600 mcg. Some doctors recommend up to 800 mcg from supplements and dietary sources. However, some women are at a higher risk for deficiency depending on medications or medical conditions.
High Risk for Deficiency
• Pregnant women with deficiency
• Women who’ve had previous pregnancy with neural tube defects or congenital heart defects
• You take valproic acid or its derivatives for autoimmune disorders
• Sickle cell disease
• Celiac disease or gluten intolerance
• Liver disease
• Consuming more than one alcoholic beverage a day
• Kidney disease
What it Protects Your Baby From
Neural Tube Defects
• Spinal Bifida
Babies born with neural tube defects account for 3,000 births each year in the US. This is a 25% drop from before the government mandated the addition of folate in enriched foods. The number has slowly declined across the globe since the CDC and other health organizations launched a worldwide initiative to educate and provide prenatal vitamins to pregnant women. (1)
Many of these conditions carry long-term care costs after delivery and others can result in death. While you can’t offer your child 100% protection, you can give them some protection against developing a neural tube defect by implementing a healthy diet and supplements.
Congenial Heart Defects
• Septal defect
• Atrial septal defect
• Ventricular septal defect
• Complete atrioventricular canal defect
• Valve defects
• Tetralogy of Fallot
• Patent ductus arteriosus
• Truncus arteriosus
• I-transposition or D-transposition
• Single ventricle defects
Congenital heart defect risk can increase during pregnancy if you don’t receive enough vitamin B9 through your supplements or diet. Again, folic acid benefits cellular growth, and this includes the development of your baby’s heart.
Supplementation doesn’t protect your baby fully. Nothing can. Many factors, such as genetics, can increase the likelihood of a congenital heart defect, so any ability to lower the risk is important. (2)
Your doctor can see a few heart conditions in vitro, but they might not be able to diagnose congenital defects until your child is older or an adult. This is why offering your baby protection as soon as possible is important.
While still being researched, preliminary results show a reduction in cleft lip and palate. The study initially found a correlation between deficient laboratory animals and the development of the conditions.
After these findings, researchers investigated any association in humans from previous studies and high-risk countries. They discovered folic acid results in a one-third reduction in cleft lip occurrences. (3)
What it Protects You From
When we hear about vitamin B9 and pregnancy, most of the focus remains on your baby and the protection your baby receives. However, you will benefit from the vitamin as well. This can be important if you’re already at risk for heart related conditions, such as hypertension or cardiovascular disease. Some research suggests it can protect against cancer and neurological diseases too. (4, 5)
Vitamin B9 can help ward off anemia. Often a blood test will let your doctor know which type you have. (6)
Folate also assists your body in absorbing and using vitamin B12, which is important for your brain health and preventing “pregnancy brain.” While not a life threatening condition, pregnancy brain can be disruptive at times.
It might prevent you from getting sick by boosting your immune system. This revolves around the role vitamin B9 plays in red cell development. Keeping you healthier during pregnancy benefits you and your baby.
Receiving all of your recommended daily allowances from food is not difficult once you understand which foods to eat. Still, pregnant women should aim to stay under 1,000 mcg per day, according to doctors.
Some medical professionals raise concerns over using synthetic vitamins over folate. Scientific research currently doesn’t back these claims, and most conducted research on the benefits are done using synthetic vitamin B9. While natural sources might be best, consuming fortified foods or supplementing is better than doing nothing.
Other early pregnancy concerns may make it difficult to get your RDA of vitamins, especially if you have morning sickness. One tip is to take your prenatal vitamin before bed when you’re most likely to keep it down. If your vomiting is severe, prolonged, or throughout the day, you should speak with your OB or midwife.
Don’t Wait Until You’re Pregnant to Supplement
If you’re trying to conceive, you and your partner can both see benefits. The earlier you start, the better. Most women are weeks into gestation before they begin supplementing. Key cellular growth and creation has already occurred by that point. Supplementing before conception gives your unborn baby protection from the start.
Some doctors suggest that males supplement as well when their partner is trying to conceive. Men receive many of the same cancer, brain, and heart benefits as women, but studies show folate increases sperm count by up to 74%. (7)
Continue Supplementing if You Breastfeed
If you breastfeed, folate continues to be an important vitamin for you and your baby. The recommended dose does drop to 500 mcg, which you can obtain from food or a supplement.
Much like when you were pregnant, folic acid benefits new cell growth. It can also repair your DNA. Research supports the fact that it’s beneficial for lowering your risk of stroke, and it further protects you and your baby from heart and brain conditions.
Postpartum depression is a common after-pregnancy concern. Because B9 does address depression, it might help women who have the baby blues, in combination with therapy. (8)
Take it if You Bottle Feed
Even if you don’t breastfeed, you should consider continuing your supplement or eating foods to meet your daily needs. Studies have linked it to a reduction in certain cancers and depression, a boost in brain health, and protection against strokes and other heart conditions.
If you plan to conceive again, you’ll already have the building blocks in place, too.
Final Thoughts on Folic Acid
Supplementing with folic acid or consuming a folate rich diet while you’re trying to conceive gives your child the most protection from birth defects. Even if it isn’t 100%, some protection is better than none.
Your diet before, during, and after pregnancy (if breastfeeding or not) is important for mother and baby. Make your food choices count and pick nutrient-rich foods to nourish you both.
No matter your personal dietary views, you can find vitamin B9 foods in every special diet. However, a focus on a Mediterranean-style or vegetarian diet might offer you larger benefits. Both are naturally rich in folate foods and contain whole foods with other important vitamins and minerals to support a healthy conception, pregnancy, delivery, and beyond.
Folate needs don’t end when your baby is born. Truly, it’s a vitamin we should all seek to add to our diets, as it can reduce the risk associated with certain cancers, protect our brain and heart, and reduce depression, its symptoms, and possibly mood disorders, too.
Whether you reach for fortified foods, a prenatal vitamin, or seek natural sources, you should aim to increase your vitamin B9 intake if you’re pregnant or looking to conceive.