Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps to strengthen the immune system and prevent certain birth defects. It is commonly supplemented in prenatal vitamins, and many women take a folic acid supplement during pregnancy. Folic acid can be found in dark leafy green vegetables like spinach, so it's easy to get enough of this essential nutrient.
The benefits of folic acid cannot be understated. This article looks at some of the ways that folic acid improves health and quality of life for both infants and adults alike. It may help you protect your unborn baby from premature birth, improve your fertility chances, or ensure your overall health has been maximized during pregnancy as well as throughout childhood and adulthood.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF FOLIC ACID: PREGNANCY
Folic acid is essential for a healthy pregnancy. Folic acid supplementation during pregnancy has been shown to reduce the risk of certain birth defects and improve overall health of both expectant mothers and their offspring. Overall, folic acid supplementation during pregnancy can help prevent approximately 4% of all pregnancies from experiencing a neural tube defect. The neural tube is the structure that develops in the embryo between the third and sixth week following conception, then continues to develop until birth (1). Neural tube defects are a group of spine-related birth defects that include spina bifida, hydrocephalus, and anencephaly (2).
Neural tube defects occur when the neural tube fails to close properly during the early days of embryonic development. This results in serious life-long health complications. A neural tube defect is only diagnosed when the baby is born, however, as most symptoms are not visible until birth (3).
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surgery to repair a spina bifida defect may range between $125 000 to $250 000 ($200 000 - $400 000 in Canadian dollars) (4). While genetic factors play an important role in the development of neural tube defects, many women have never experienced a neural tube defect and have never even heard of one until they become pregnant. Folic acid supplementation during pregnancy can reduce the risk of neural tube defects by approximately 40% (5).
Despite its importance, folic acid has been under-utilized in Canada. Only about 10% of women of childbearing age in Canada have taken folic acid supplements before trying to conceive. In order to ensure adequate folic acid intake, it is important that all women who are planning to conceive take a daily prenatal vitamin containing 400 mcg of folic acid (6). Both pregnant and non-pregnant women should take a daily prenatal vitamin that contains 400 mcg of folic acid (7).
When a pregnancy is affected by a neural tube defect, medical complications can be very severe. The neural tube is a structure that develops in the embryo, between the third and sixth week of pregnancy. It helps to form the brain and spinal cord, as well as other vital organs. Most neural tube defects occur in the first three weeks of pregnancy. The main risk factors for neural tube defects include maternal age under 20, low socio-economic status, being unmarried, smoking during pregnancy, having a previous child with a birth defect or genetic syndrome (8).
Folic acid supplementation can reduce the risk of neural tube defects by 40% (5). This is because folic acid plays an important role in proper cell division. It is known to help prevent "spontaneous mutations" and reduce chromosome breaks (9). Spontaneous mutations are those that occur during cell division.
Maternal diet is the most significant source of folic acid in the average diet. Folate, another name for this B vitamin, is found naturally in leafy green vegetables and fortified grains. The benefits of folic acid include an increased desire for green leafy vegetables.
Folic acid supplementation is also important to prevent folate deficiency in mothers, which can lead to neural tube defects in their offspring. For example, one study showed that folic acid supplementation was associated with a 70% reduction of neural tube defects (10).
Many pre-natal vitamins and prenatal vitamin supplements purchased in Canada contain 400 mcg of folic acid but do not indicate on the label if they contain folic acid (7). This is a problem, because folic acid deficiency can develop without the user being aware that they are deficient.
To ensure adequate folic acid intake, it is important that women with a prior history of neural tube defects do not become pregnant. It is also important for all those planning to conceive to take a daily prenatal vitamin containing 400 mcg of folic acid (6).
HEALTH BENEFITS OF FOLIC ACID: BIRTH DEFECTS
Taking folic acid during pregnancy can help to reduce the risk of certain birth defects. Folic acid is a B vitamin. If a baby is born with a neural tube defect, it is likely that the mother's diet was low in this nutrient. Folate deficiency can lead to spina bifida and anencephaly, which are both serious spinal cord abnormalities (1).
According to Health Canada, approximately 4% of all pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects; about 80% of these births involve spina bifida (11).
Folic acid can also help to prevent cleft lip, cleft palate and congenital heart defects. These defects are a group of common birth defects in which parts of the body are either formed incorrectly or do not form completely (12). They include conotruncal heart defects, such as tetralogy of Fallot; diaphragmatic hernia; and pulmonary stenosis, among others (12).
To ensure proper folic acid absorption, it is important that the body has enough vitamin B12. This nutrient is found naturally in foods such as red meat, poultry and fish. Vitamin B12 is not found in dairy products or fortified cereals (13).