Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is a vitamin that is important for our body to make new cells. The terms folic acid and folate are usually used interchangeably and generally refer to the same thing. The only difference is that folic acid is man-made while folate is naturally occurring and is found in foods such as leafy vegetables, beans, avocados, and milk. Nevertheless, most women do not get enough folate they need from food alone.
Folic acid is very important for women who are planning to get pregnant because it is required for the normal development of a baby, especially during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Folic acid is required to prevent neural tube defects, a major birth defect of the baby’s brain and spine. Neural tube defects happen in the first month of pregnancy, before some women may even know that they are pregnant. Therefore, it is important that women take enough folic acid before getting pregnant. Studies have shown that supplementation with folic acid can help prevent neural tube defects by at least 70%.
A daily folic acid supplement containing 400mcg, beginning at least one month before getting pregnant, is recommended for most women. Many available multivitamins contain at least 400mcg of folic acid and this dose is adequate to meet the growth needs of the baby. However, some women may require a higher dose of folic acid. For instance, women who have had a baby with neural tube defect, has diabetes or are taking certain anti-seizure medications may need a higher dose of folic acid.
It is also worth noting that some multivitamins that contain folic acid may also cause constipation in some women due to the iron content (although constipation during pregnancy can also be due to high progesterone level). In this case, increase in fluid and fibre intake as well as some light physical activities such as walking may help. At times, a switch of supplement to one with different content may be required. If you are in doubt, please speak to your doctor or pharmacist for further information and advice.
- Czeizel al. (2013) Folate Deficiency and Folic Acid Supplementation: The Prevention of Neural-Tube Defects and Congenital Heart Defects. Nutrients 5(11): 4760–4775.
- Cavalli, P. (2008) Prevention of Neural Tube Defects and proper folate periconceptional supplementation. J Prenat Med 2(4): 40-41.