Folic acid, also known as folate, is a B-group vitamin which is essential for the healthy development of the foetus in early pregnancy. Folic acid is instrumental in preventing neural tube defects (NTDs) – serious birth defects of the spinal cord (such as spina bifida) and the brain (such as anencephaly).
Folic acid for pregnancy
In Australia approximately 600 pregnancies each year result in foetuses affected by neural tube defects. Taking folic acid prior to conception and throughout the first trimester has been shown to prevent seven out of ten cases of neural tube defect. It is not surprising then that doctors and midwives recommend folic acid for pregnancy.
Keeping in mind that half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, even women who aren’t planning a baby should take folic acid. A water soluble vitamin, folic acid is not stored in the human body so must be consumed every day in order to make sure the body has an adequate supply.
Folic acid as pregnancy progresses
While folic acid for pregnancy is strongly recommended in the first trimester, after the risk of NTD has subsided getting enough folic acid remains important. Folic acid supports the body in making normal red blood cells and preventing anemia, and is essential to the rapid cell growth of the placenta and your developing baby. It also supports the body in the production, repair, and functioning of DNA, our genetic map and a basic building block of cells.
Folic acid for breastfeeding
For the same reasons that folic acid for pregnancy is recommended, so too folic acid is important for breastfeeding mothers. As a result, many midwives and doctors recommend you continue taking your pregnancy supplement (containing folic acid) while breastfeeding. Folic acid is actively excreted into breast milk but no adverse effects in nursing infants have been associated with its use.
Folic acid for all
While there is definitely a national focus on folic acid for pregnancy, folic acid performs several vital functions in the bodies of both men and women throughout life. These include synthesizing DNA and repairing RNA; aiding rapid cell division and growth; and producing healthy red blood cells. In addition, avoiding folic acid deficiency has been shown to:
- Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and second heart attacks
- Reduce the risk of some cancers, such as stomach cancer
- Promote male fertility by supporting maintenance of a healthy sperm count
- Reduce the risk of developing clinical depression
- Promote mental agility and a sound memory