How Important Is It to Take a Folic Acid Supplement During Pregnancy?

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate (vitamin B9), which can be found in many fortified foods and supplements. Vitamin B9 helps convert carbohydrates into glucose to be used as energy. Vitamin B9 is important for the function of the brain and plays a part in emotional and mental health. It assists with DNA and RNA production, and is especially important in pregnancy, infancy and adolescence when rapid cell growth is taking place. Taking a folic acid supplement before pregnancy as well as taking folic acid during pregnancy is important for healthy development of the organs of the developing baby.

Deficiency of folic acid

See here for >> folic acid deficiency symptoms.

Folic acid and neural tube defects

Neural tube defects affect more that 300,000 births worldwide every year and are one of the most common birth defects. The neural tube forms the brain and spinal cord normally 28 weeks following conception. Neural tube defects can develop if the neural tube hasn’t properly closed. Some types of  neural tube defects are spina bifida, anencephaly, iniencephaly and encephalocele. An increased risk of neural tube defects is associated with insufficient folate levels during pregnancy.

Folic acid and congenital heart defects

Congenital heart  defects take place in 8 out of every 1,000 births every year in the United States. Taking a folic acid supplement during pregnancy has been shown t significantly decrease the risk of congenital heart defects. Congenital heart defects happen when there is abnormal growth of the heart or blood vessels before birth. Research suggests that taking a folic acid supplement before pregnancy is associated with a reduced risk of congenital heart  defects.[1] Other studies have produced conflicting results with regards to the association between taking a folic acid supplement during pregnancy and congenital heart defects risk. A meta analysis has however concluded that taking a folic acid supplement during pregnancy significantly reduces the risk of congenital heart  defects.[2]

Folic acid and cleft palate

There is evidence taking a folic acid supplement in early pregnancy may help prevent cleft palate and cleft lip with one study reporting a 4 times higher risk of a cleft lip or palate for mothers not taking folic acid supplement in the first 3 months of pregnancy.[3][4] These birth defects happen when there is improper merging of parts of the mouth and lip during the first 6 to 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Folic acid and autism

Research indicates that women that take the recommended daily dose of folic acid, which is the synthetic kind of folate or vitamin B-9, in the 1st month of being pregnant, could have a lower risk of having a child with autism.[5]

A previous study revealed that women taking prenatal vitamins at about the time of conception had a reduced risk of having a child with autism. It was sought in the current research to find out if it was the folic acid in those supplements that was the cause of the reduced risk. The results suggest that women who are trying to become pregnant as well as those who have already conceived should consider taking a folic acid supplement.

It was found that women who took the recommended daily dose of folic acid throughout the 1st month of pregnancy had a lower risk of having a child with autism spectrum disorder, particularly if the mother and/or her child had a specific genetic variant which is connected to less effective metabolism of folate.

Folic acid protects against embryonic brain development problems by facilitating DNA methylation reactions which can bring about changes in how the genetic code is read. A sufficient methyl donor supply like folic acid may be particularly crucial in the time period close to conception, at the time that the DNA methylation road map is defined.

Information was collected for the study from about 835 mothers of children having autism, developmental delay or typical development.

Average daily folic acid intake was evaluated based on the amount as well as the frequency of dietary folic acid supplements consumed, and also the folic acid enriched food consumed. Data was collected for the period of time when the women had been pregnant as well as the 3 months prior to becoming pregnant.

The research discovered that mothers of normally developing children reported more than average folic acid intake, and had been more likely to fulfill intake recommendations throughout the 1st month of pregnancy compared to mothers of children having autism spectrum disorder. It was found that as the amount of folic acid taken increased, so autism risk decreased. The mothers of the children that had developmental delay tended to have a lower estimated intake of folic acid in comparison to mothers of normally developing children throughout the 3 months prior to pregnancy.

Folic acid before pregnancy

Taking a folic acid supplement prior to as well as during early pregnancy has been advised for decades, soon after research confirmed its potential to prevent up to 70% of neural tube defects, as well as improper formation of the embryonic spinal cord and brain. The protective effect of folic acid on neural tube defects was also stronger when the MTHFR 677 C>T gene variant was present. Early maternal supplementation of folic acid has also been shown to improve other attention, social and behavioral outcomes in the developing child.

Folic Acid During Pregnancy

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