If you’re planning for a baby or trying to fall pregnant, I’m sure you’re well acquainted with the recommendation to get onto a folic acid supplement (at the very least). There are a number of beneficial and important nutrients for preconception, but folic acid is the one that commonly sits at the top of the list.
What is Folate?
Folate is a B vitamin (B9), naturally occuring in foods such as leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, lentils and organ meats.
Folic acid is a synthetic version of this nutrient that can be found in most supplements. A number of foods, including commercial breads and many cereals, are also fortified with small amounts of folic acid.
Folinic acid is another compound you may have heard about, which can be found in some supplements. This form of folate is a more ‘active’ form and seems to be more bioavailable (i.e. easier for your body to absorb).
Why do I need it?
Folate is an important nutrient for many body functions, including DNA synthesis, oocyte quality and maturation (in other words, healthy eggs), reducing excess homocysteine (related to inflammation) and supporting nervous system function.
From a preconception and pregnancy point of view, folate is THE nutrient to protect against neural tube defects (NTDs). Very important, as the neural tube is a precursor to the baby’s central nervous system i.e. spinal cord and brain. In fact, this is one of the main reasons bread flours are fortified with folic acid (mandatory in Australia since 2007). Even so, food intake – including fortified foods and those naturally high in folate – is rarely adequate and supplementation is recommended for women planning a baby.
The most important period for folate’s protective action against NTDs is the very early stage of pregnancy – those first weeks of gestation, often before you even know you’re pregnant.
Although folate plays an important role throughout the pregnancy, this early stage is critical.
Adequate levels of folate (and B-vitamins generally) have also been linked to a number of other beneficial outcomes, including reduced risk of miscarriage.
For this reason, I and my colleagues strongly recommend preconception care (including thorough health assessment and appropriate supplementation) for any woman and her partner who are planning on having a baby in the near future. Ideally, you would start this at least 3 months before falling pregnant.
What if I’m pregnant NOW?
If you’ve fallen pregnant, you haven’t taking any supplements AND your diet doesn’t contain a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, I’d suggest making an appointment with your practitioner to talk about the best food and supplement choices for you.
Also, don’t panic. While folate is something that’s recommended, across the board, for preconception; if it so happens that you conceive at a time when you haven’t had adequate intake, it doesn’t mean you WILL experience the complications mentioned above. Supplemental folic acid is about risk reduction and this blog post is providing you with a general overview of the topic so you can better understand better why preconception care is recommended.
At the end of the day, learning about preconception care is empowering you with knowledge so you can make the best choices available and provide the healthiest environment for you and your growing baby.
There’s much more to preconception care than folate, but as this is one of the key nutrients recommended by healthcare professionals of all disciplines, it’s one I think important to discuss.