Trying to have a baby? Now is the time to increase your folic acid.

Women's Care
Apr 25, 2023

Savannah OB/GYN Dr. Ashley Hunsuck talks about the benefits of taking a prenatal vitamin before becoming pregnant

Everyone needs folic acid, but for women trying to get pregnant or not actively preventing pregnancy, it is extremely important. Getting enough folic acid before and during pregnancy can help prevent major birth defects to the baby’s spine or brain.

Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9 and is often found in certain fortified foods and supplements. Vitamin B9 is an essential nutrient that plays a crucial role in cell growth and the formation of DNA. Folic acid may be confused with folate, which is a naturally occurring vitamin B9 and is found in certain food sources. Both are beneficial to baby’s development.

“There has been proven benefit to taking folic acid for women interested in pregnancy or not actively preventing pregnancy,” says Dr. Ashley Hunsuck, OB/GYN at Savannah OB/GYN. “The reason why folic acid is so important is that being low in folic acid can increase your risk of getting neural tube defects.”

The neural tube forms the early brain and spine while a baby is growing in the mother’s uterus. Neural tube defects occur when the neural tube does not close properly, creating problems with the way the brain, spinal cord and spine form. The most common types of neural tube defects are spina bifida, anencephaly and encephalocele.

Neural tube defects can develop very early during pregnancy. The spine, for example, forms at three to five weeks, Dr. Hunsuck says, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. That’s why it’s recommended to start a prenatal vitamin before conception.

“Research suggests starting a prenatal vitamin one month before conception. I recommend a couple of months,” Dr. Hunsuck says.

In an average weight woman, Dr. Hunsuck recommends 400 micrograms of folic acid, which is common in prenatal vitamins. For women with BMIs greater than 30, the recommendation is 4 milligrams. That’s because women who are considered obese are three times more likely of having a baby with a neural tube defect.

In addition to birth defects to the baby’s brain and spinal cord, folic acid has been found to reduce the risk of cleft lip, cleft palate and certain types of heart defects in the baby, as well as reduce the risk of preeclampsia in mothers, adds Haley Cox, St. Joseph’s Hospital clinical dietitian.

Related Article: The known and unknown of preeclampsia in pregnant women

Ways to get folic acid and folate Haley Cox

There are certain foods that are naturally high in folate, Cox says. These include:

  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Lettuce
  • Okra
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Melons
  • Beans
  • Orange juice
  • Fortified cereals

Related Article: Understanding a pregnancy diet and proper weight gain

It’s important to incorporate these foods into your diet while trying to conceive and throughout pregnancy. However, it can be hard to measure your daily intake of folate from natural sources. Additionally, folic acid is absorbed better than folate found in food, Cox says. That’s why your obstetrician recommends an over-the-counter vitamin or supplement.

And while folic acid is most beneficial while trying to conceive and the first eight weeks of pregnancy when the baby’s organs are developing, there are other benefits to prenatal vitamins throughout pregnancy and while lactating. For example, Dr. Hunsuck says prenatal vitamins can help decrease nausea and vomiting if taken prior to becoming pregnant. Prenatal vitamins also can make your hair and nails healthier and help supplement needed nutrients while breastfeeding.

Related Article: Should expecting mothers take prenatal vitamins?

“I also recommend counseling before pregnancy,” Dr. Hunsuck adds. “Preconception counseling will address many factors so you can go into your pregnancy hopefully as healthy as possible.” 

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