Why folic acid is vital if you’re thinking of having a baby

Folic acid is vital for the healthy development of a babys brain and spinal cord.
Folic acid is vital for the healthy development of a babys brain and spinal cord.

Starting a family might not be on your agenda right now, but if you’re planning a pregnancy, or there’s a chance you might become pregnant, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re getting enough folic acid.

But why is this so important?

Folic acid – also known vitamin B9 – is vital for the healthy development of a baby’s brain and spinal cord.

It significantly reduces the risk of being born with neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida, a condition where the spine is not formed properly leaving gaps.

Often not picked up will the 20-week scan, it can result in a wide range of clinical problems, depending on where the spine is affected.

Symptoms can vary from impaired mobility to bladder or bowel problems to problems with the brain.

The NHS recommends that any woman who might become pregnant takes 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, starting before conception and continuing until after the 12th week of pregnancy.

NTDs will generally develop in the first 28 days of pregnancy – which unfortunately is often before many women even know they’re pregnant and at least two unborn babies develop a condition like spina bifida every day.

Every year, 900 pregnancies are affected by NTDs, and it’s estimated that more than 70% of these could be prevented by folic acid supplementation.

Women are at a higher risk of having a baby with a NTD if they, their partner or family members have similar problems, or if they have had previous pregnancies affected by NTD.

Medical conditions such as diabetes can also increase the risk. For most women, an over the counter preparation containing 400 micrograms of folic acid is sufficient.

Folic acid also plays an important role in the health of all ages members. It’s responsible for cell growth and development and together with vitamin B12, helps the formation of red blood cells.

Both vitamins, together, help nerve function and the formation of DNA within every body cell.

Men and children, as well as women who are not likely to become pregnant, usually get enough folic acid by eating a diet containing a wide variety of foods. However, folic acid deficiency can cause some general symptoms, including tiredness caused by anaemia, loss of appetite, weight loss, headaches and heart palpitations.

Good sources of folic acid include leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and broccoli; beans and legumes; oranges and orange juice; wheatbran and other wholegrain foods, and poultry, pork, shellfish and liver.

Dr. Alexandra Phelan is a GP with the NHS and Pharmacy2U, an online service which provides free, fast and convenient delivery of NHS repeat prescriptions.