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Folic Acid
- An Essential Part of Pregnancy Nutrition

Folic acid is an important part of pregnancy nutrition during the first trimester. Between days 17 to 30, four to six weeks after the first days of a woman's last menstrual cycle, the formation and closure of the neural tube occurs. The neural tube will later become the spinal cord, brain, and bone surrounding the spinal cord and brain.

If the fetus does not receive the proper pregnancy nutrition before and during the first trimester, neural tube defects may occur.

Neural Tube Defects: Spina Bifida and Anencephaly

Neural tube defects occur very early in pregnancy. During the first trimester, one of the ends of the neural tube will fail to close properly resulting in this type of birth defect. The two most common neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly.

Spina bifida results when the lower end of the neural tube fails to close. As a result, the spinal cord and vertebrate do not develop properly. Sometimes a sac of fluid protrudes through an opening in the back, and often a portion of the spinal cord is contained in this sac. Symptoms associated with spina bifida include:

  • paralysis of the infant's legs
  • loss of bowel and bladder control
  • water on the brain
  • learning disabilities
The survival rate for infants born with spina bifida is 80%. Despite varying degrees of disability, many individuals with spina bifida lead long, successful, and productive lives.

Anencephaly is a fatal condition in which the upper end of the neural tube fails to close. This results in the brain not developing completely or not being present entirely. Pregnancies affected by anencephaly often result in miscarriages and the infants who are born alive die immediately after birth.

How Folic Acid Can Help Prevent Neural Tube Defects

Folic acid has been proven to help prevent a neural tube defect pregnancy by 50 to 70 percent, when taken one month before conception and throughout the first trimester. Folic acid is necessary for proper cell growth and development of the embryo.

Although it is not known exactly how folic acid works to prevent neural tube defects, its role in tissue formation is essential. Folic acid is required for the production of DNA, which is necessary for the rapid cell growth needed to make fetal tissues and organs early in pregnancy.

For this reason it is important for a woman to have sufficient folic acid ingested before and during pregnancy.

Sources of Folic Acid

When looking for sources of folic acid, it's important to understand that there are two major sources of this B-vitamin: folate and folic acid.

Folate is the form found naturally found in foods. Folic acid is the synthetic form that is used in vitamin supplements and added to fortified foods. Most of the folate found in foods has a more complex structure than the synthetic folic acid. A more complex structure affects the intestine's ability to process and absorb folate found in foods.

The body can absorb and use the folic acid found in vitamin supplements and prepared foods more efficiently than it can convert the food folate into a useable form. As a result, synthetic folic acid is about twice as bioavailable or absorbable than naturally occurring food folate.

Reducing Risks By Taking Folic Acid Every Day

Women need to get enough folic acid every day throughout their reproductive years. This B-vitamin must be taken daily for at least one month before conception and continue taking it through the first trimester of pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects.

The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age should consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid everyday to reduce their risk of having an affected pregnancy.

For women who have already had an affected pregnancy, it is recommended that a much larger amount of folic acid be taken starting one month before conception and continuing throughout the first three months of pregnancy.

Finally, all women capable of becoming pregnant should consume enough folic acid every day because half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned and neural tube defects occur before many women know that they are pregnant.

John C. Swartz is an independent nutritional counselor located in Boca Raton, FL. KRS Global Biotechnology, Inc. does research and development in microbiology, instrumentation and clinical nutrition. The information provided is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advice from your physician or other health care professional. You should consult with a healthcare professional before starting any diet, exercise or supplementation program, before taking any medication, or if you have or suspect you might have a health problem.

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